Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Darwin, Erasmus

DARWIN, ERASMUS (1731–1802), physician, was the descendant of a Lincolnshire family. A William Darwin (d. 1644) possessed a small estate at Cleatham, and was yeoman of the armoury at Greenwich to James I and Charles I. His son William (b. 1620) served in the royalist army, and afterwards became a barrister and recorder of Lincoln and married the daughter of Erasmus Earle, serjeant-at-law [q.v.] His eldest son, a third William, married the heiress of Robert Waring of Wilsford, Nottinghamshire, who also inherited the manor of Elston, still in possession of the family. The third William had two sons, William and Robert, of whom Robert was educated for the bar, but retired to Elston upon his marriage. He was a member of the Spalding Club. He had four sons and a daughter. The eldest son, Robert Waring, had a taste for poetry and botany. He published ‘Principia Botanica’ (3rd edit. 1810), containing ‘many curious notes on biology.’ John, the third son, became rector of Elston; and Erasmus, the fourth, was born at Elston Hall 12 Dec. 1731. In 1741 he was sent to Chesterfield School, whence he wrote letters, showing decided talent, to his sister, and in 1750 entered St. John's College, Cambridge. Here he held the Exeter scholarship, and in 1754 graduated B.A., being first of the junior optimes. At Cambridge he wrote a poem on the death of Prince Frederick of Wales (published in the ‘European Magazine’ for 1795). In the autumn of 1754 he went to Edinburgh to study medicine. His father died 20 Nov. 1754. In 1755 he took the M.B. degree at Cambridge, and finally left Edinburgh to settle as a physician at Nottingham in September 1756. As no patients came, he moved in the November following to Lichfield. Here his practice steadily increased to about 1,000l. a year. In December 1757 he married Mary Howard, with whom he lived happily till her death in 1770, after a long illness. At Lichfield he was familiar with many distinguished men. In 1766, while botanising, he accidentally met Rousseau at Wootton Hall, with whom he afterwards corresponded. He was intimate with Bolton, Watt, Wedgwood, the Sewards, and other well-known men. They held monthly, or, as Darwin called them, ‘lunar meetings’ at each other's houses. Darwin was a good talker, though troubled by a stammer. He met Johnson once or twice, but they disliked each other as heartily as was to be expected; Darwin being a freethinker and a radical, and a dictator in his own circle (SEWARD, pp. 69–76). The fame of an ingenious carriage which he had invented brought him the acquaintance of R. L. Edgeworth. At Edgeworth's first visit Darwin came home with a man whom he had found dead drunk on the road and benevolently taken into his carriage, and who turned out to be Mrs. Darwin's brother. Edgeworth afterwards introduced Thomas Day, author of ‘Sandford and Merton’ [q. v.] In 1781 Darwin married the widow of Colonel Chandos-Pole of Radbourne Hall, whose acquaintance he had made when attending her children in 1778, and to whom he had addressed many passionate poems before her husband's death in 1780. She disliked Lichfield, and upon his second marriage he settled at Radbourne Hall, and thence moved to Derby and afterwards to Breadsall Priory, where he died, suddenly and painlessly of heart disease, 18 April 1802. Darwin was a man of great bodily and intellectual vigour. He was of large frame and unwieldy in later life, as appears from the characteristic portrait by Wright of Derby, a photograph of which is prefixed to the work by his grandson, Charles Darwin. Several accidents in his youth had made him clumsy in his movements and nervously cautious. He was exceedingly energetic in his profession, and his carriage was fitted up for reading and writing. Like Blackmore he wrote much of his poetry while visiting his patients (R. L. Edgeworth, ii. 245). He was irascible and imperious, even to his elder children, though he became strongly interested in their success, and was warmly loved by his second family. Although he could be caustic and severe, he acquired the name of ‘the benevolent,’ and while despising cant was most actively helpful to real sufferers. He showed his public spirit by getting up a dispensary at Lichfield and founding the Philosophical Society at Derby (both in 1784). He was a strong advocate of temperance, and for many years an almost total abstainer. He confined himself to English wines, possibly to minimise the temptation to excess. Miss Seward, however, tells a singular story, which had some foundation (Darwin, p. 59), of his swimming a river in his clothes in a state of ‘vinous exhilaration,’ and then delivering a lecture from a tub in the market-place of Nottingham upon prudence and sanitary regulations. He persuaded most of the neighbouring gentry to become water-drinkers (Edgeworth, Memoirs, ii. 69). Many anecdotes are told of his kindness to his patients and servants, of his charity to the poor, and his gratuitous attendance upon the inferior clergy of Lichfield. He was accused of avarice, but this was apparently due to a serious acceptance of his own bantering assertion that he only wrote for money. His professional fame was such that George III said that he would take him as his physician if he would come to London. Darwin, however, declined to move. The falsehood of some unfavourable anecdotes given by Miss Seward is fully exposed by Charles Darwin, who attributes her dislike to her failure in marrying him after the death of his first wife. She published, indeed, a retractation of one of the most offensive, imputing a want of natural feeling on his son's death (Darwin, p. 74; Seward, Letters, iv. 135). Charles Darwin also replies to some statements in the life of Mrs. Schimmelpenninck, who seems to have been shocked by the doctor's rough sceptical talk. Darwin sacrificed his early poetical impulses to his profession. In 1775 he sends a friend some verses written after a ‘twenty years' neglect of the muses,’ and promises to give up poetry and prepare a medical work (the ‘Zoonomia’) for posthumous publication. In 1778 he bought eight acres near Lichfield, where he made a botanical garden. Miss Seward calls the place ‘a wild umbrageous valley … irriguous from various springs and swampy from their plenitude’ (Seward, p. 125). Miss Seward wrote some verses about it, which suggested his ‘Botanic Garden.’ The second part, the ‘Loves of the Plants,’ was published first in 1789; the first part, the ‘Economy of Vegetation,’ in 1792 (4th edit. in 1799). The book was at first anonymous, and the opening verses of the ‘Loves of the Plants’ were taken without acknowledgment from the lines by Miss Seward, which suggested the whole. She complains of this proceeding, though he oddly appears to have considered it as ‘a compliment,’ which he was ‘bound to pay.’ He had also sent the same verses to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ where they appeared with Miss Seward's name in May 1783 (cf. Seward, Darwin, 132; Letters, ii. 312, iii. 155; R. L. Edgeworth, ii. 245; Monthly Mag. 1803, ii. 100). The poem had a singular success, was warmly admired by Walpole, and praised in a joint poem by Cowper and Hayley. The famous ‘Loves of the Triangles,’ in the ‘Anti-Jacobin,’ suddenly revealed its absurd side to ordinary readers. Darwin himself is said by Edgeworth to have admired the parody (Monthly Magazine, 1802, p. 115; Miss Seward, p. 207, gives a different account). The ‘Temple of Nature, or the Origin of Society, a poem with philosophical notes,’ appeared posthumously in 1803. A collected edition of his poetical works was published in 1807.

His first prose work was a paper contributed to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ in 1757. He published in 1794–6 ‘Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life,’ and in 1799 ‘Phytologia; or the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening,’ which contain many of his speculations. In 1797 appeared ‘A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools,’ with some sensible remarks. It was written to help two illegitimate daughters who had opened a school at Ashbourne. He was interested in many scientific inquiries and invented many mechanical contrivances. A fool, he said, ‘is a man who never tried an experiment in his life’ (Memoir of Maria Edgeworth, 1867, i. 31). The specially ingenious carriage, which led to the introduction of Edgeworth, caused several accidents, by one of which he broke his knee-cap, and was permanently crippled.

Darwin's poetry would be forgotten were it not for Canning's parody. He followed the model of Pope, just passing out of favour, for his versification, and expounded in his notes the theory that poetry should consist of word-painting. He had great facility of language, but the effort to give an interest to scientific didacticism in verse by elaborate rhetoric and forced personification was naturally a failure. Darwin would not have shrunk from Coleridge's favourite phrase, ‘Inoculation, heavenly maid.’ Yet it is remarkable that Darwin's bad poetry everywhere shows a powerful mind. Coleridge, in the ‘Biographia Literaria,’ speaks of the impression which it made even upon good judges, and says that he compared it to the Russian palace of old, ‘glittering, cold, and transitory’ (Biog. Lit., 1817, p. 19). It was translated into French, Portuguese, and Italian. The permanent interest in his writings depends upon his exposition of the form of evolutionism afterwards expounded by Lamarck. He caught a glimpse of many observations and principles, afterwards turned to account by his grandson, Charles Darwin; but, though a great observer and an acute thinker, he missed the characteristic doctrine which made the success of his grandson's scheme. He attributes the modifications of species to the purposeful adaptations of individuals to their wants, and endows plants with a kind of life and intelligence. The essay by Krause (translated) and the prefixed life by Charles Darwin give a full appreciation of the older theory and its points of approximation to the later.

Darwin had three sons by his first wife. Charles, the eldest (3 Sept. 1758–15 May 1778), gave the highest promise, studied medicine at Edinburgh, received a gold medal from the Æsculapian Society for an investigation, and died from a wound received in dissecting. Erasmus (b. 1759) became a solicitor in Lichfield and committed suicide in a fit of temporary insanity, 30 Dec. 1799. The third son, Robert Waring (b. 1766), became a physician at Shrewsbury and acquired a large practice. He became F.R.S. in 1788, and was the father of Charles Robert Darwin. He died on 13 Nov. 1848. By his second wife Darwin had four sons and three daughters. His eldest daughter, Violetta, married S. Tertius Galton and was the mother of Mr. Francis Galton, who has erected a monument to his grandfather in Lichfield Cathedral.

[Erasmus Darwin, by Ernst Krause, translated by W. S. Dallas, with a preliminary notice by Charles Darwin, 1879, gives the fullest account. See also Anna Seward's Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin, 1804; Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth,; Miss Seward's Letters; Life of Mrs. Schimmelpenninck (1879), pp. 120–128, 195–208; Monthly Magazine for June 1802, pp. 457–62, and September 1802, p. 115; John Dowson's Erasmus Darwin, Philosopher, Poet, and Physician, 1861; Evolution Old and New, by Samuel Butler, author of ‘Erewhon,’ &c., 1879 (Mr. Butler endeavours to revive the old evolutionism of Erasmus Darwin as against the new evolutionism of Charles Darwin).]

L. S.