Out of Time: Erasmus Darwin, the 'Da Vinci of the East Midlands'

Words: Ashley Carter
Illustrations: Natalie Owen
Monday 14 February 2022
reading time: min, words

He hated slavery, promoted the education of women, created far-sighted inventions, led the Midlands Enlightenment and made enormous strides forward in physics, biology, medicine, botany and numerous other fields. So why isn’t the name of Erasmus Darwin, perhaps the greatest scientific mind Nottingham ever produced, more widely known?


Having historical heroes is a dangerous business, and for very good reason. Time and again I’ve become fascinated with a figure from the past, only to find out that they’ve been involved in some horror which, even if justifiable (or as often, not) during their lifetime, still leaves you with a bitter taste in the mouth. I’m not naïve enough to think that by digging deep I will uncover some saint-like figure who never put a foot wrong, and understand that, as complex, flawed humans, we are all products of our cultural and societal environments. To steal a quote from John Dalberg-Acton, “Great men are almost always bad men.” As our understanding of the past shapes our view of the present, we’re in a constant state of re-evaluation about which figures are still celebrated today. Take Edward Colston as a recent, high-profile example of this. For almost two centuries his involvement in the Atlantic slave trade was overshadowed by his philanthropic work, despite the fact that such work was funded by his participation in the buying and selling of human beings. It wasn’t until the 1990s, over 270 years after his death, that the attention truly shifted towards his reputation as a slaver and, last year, his statue was unceremoniously torn down and dumped into Bristol Harbour. 

It’s always with a certain level of trepidation that I begin researching figures from Nottingham’s history worth celebrating and, with this being the science issue, I was quite spoilt for choice. With my tin helmet firmly affixed, I started to wade through the minefield of potential wrong’uns, only to find myself pleasantly surprised. For all the enormous scientific forward strides the sons and daughters of this city have produced, one name appeared time and again. A man that, for the most part, appeared to be on the ‘right side’ of history and, despite not even being the most famous name in his family, made an incredible social and scientific contribution during his life.

Erasmus Darwin could best be described as a scientific all-rounder. A polymath who, perhaps in detriment to his popular legacy, can’t be summed up for a singular creation in the same way a Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell can. But his contributions to the English language, poetry, natural philosophy, physiology, the burgeoning theory of evolution and enlightenment thinking were all groundbreaking. In the introduction to The Life of Erasmus Darwin (written by his grandson, Charles – more on him later), editor Desmond King-Hele says Erasmus is seen as “having achieved more in a wider variety of fields than anyone since.” Poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge described him as “the first literary character in Europe,” and, more recently, Erasmus Darwin has become known as ‘the Da Vinci of the Midlands.’ 

There is hardly an idea and hardly an invention in the world of today that he did not father or foresee, from the philosophy of Mr. Bernard Shaw to the phonograph of Mr. Thomas Edison

So why isn’t he as widely-known as, for example, his own grandson today? It’s a complex question, and the cogs of history have a habit of swallowing worthy people as they churn on, unrelenting. As much as I loathe the phrase ‘ahead of his time’ (as being of his time, he was, in fact, exactly of his time), there’s something of the Marty McFly playing Johnny B. Goode to a bemused 1950s audience about Erasmus Darwin. “You might not dig my Theory of Evolution,” he might have said, “but your great-grandkids will love it.” We’re also offered the benefit of hindsight when evaluating his place in the annals of time. He was right about so many things - be they the education of women, the abolition of the slave trade, the theory of evolution, or his numerous inventions – that it is only now, when looking at how integral he was at shaping the building blocks that serve as the foundation of our modern understanding of huge natural, societal and philosophical questions, that we can truly appreciate his perspicacity. He was a man truly committed to progress, in all its forms. 

But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In 1731, Erasmus Darwin was born into a Britain of relative social stability. The population was at a steady seven million, and the increase of agricultural production ensured that, generally speaking, there was enough food to go around. There were deep cultural divides, particularly in the Celtic fringes – Ireland, Scotland and Wales – who had barely assimilated, and many of whom spoke no English at all. The throne was held by George II – the second monarch of the relatively new Hanoverian dynasty – and the nation found itself at something of a historical estuary between the old world and the new. Perhaps the best example of this can be seen with a pair of events occurring less than two decades apart in the years before Erasmus’ birth: astronomer James Bradley becoming the first man to calculate the speed of light in 1728, and Jane Wenham being the last woman to be condemned to death for witchcraft just sixteen years previously. 

The seventh and final child of a Nottingham lawyer, Erasmus was born at Elston Hall near Newark. His schooling in Chesterfield led to three years studying classics and mathematics at Cambridge, followed by another three years of medical training at Edinburgh, before returning to the Midlands where he would stay for the rest of his life. Running a successful medical practice in Lichfield, he endeared himself to the local population by saving the life of a fisherman who seemed sure to die, and was elected a member of the Royal Society – Britain’s national academy of sciences – in 1761. His first wife, Mary Howard, died in 1770, leaving three sons, two of whom subsequently died. But the youngest, Robert Warring Darwin, married the daughter of Erasmus’ close friend, English potter, entrepreneur and fellow abolitionist Josiah Wedgewood. It would be this marriage that produced Erasmus’ grandson Charles Darwin. In the early 1770s, Erasmus fathered two illegitimate daughters with his son’s governess, Mary Parker, before marrying a young widow named Elizabeth Pole in 1781 and subsequently fathering another seven children. 

He was widely ridiculed for suggesting that electricity might one day have practical uses, as well as his belief that women should be educated

He was a compassionate, energetic, sociable and caring man, beloved by his patients and enormously respected by his peers. A rather unflattering physical description written upon his death in 1802 reads, “[he] was of middle stature, in person gross and corpulent; his features were coarse, and his countenance heavy; if not wholly void of animation, it certainly was by no means expressive… in his gait and dress he was rather clumsy and slovenly, and frequently walked with his tongue hanging out of his mouth.” He struggled to deal with pain, both his own and his patients, and regarded alcohol as poison, having watched his first wife follow her father into alcoholism. But for his apparent physical failings (despite marrying three wives and fathering, by some accounts, at least fourteen children), Erasmus Darwin possessed a remarkably modern attitude to sex. He had no issues with masturbation or homosexuality, and believed that sexual reproduction facilitated the imprinted patterns of experience to be passed on to each new generation. “Sexual reproduction is the chef d'oeuvre,” he wrote, “the masterpiece of nature.”

Along with a large sexual appetite, he possessed a mind quite unmatched in his lifetime. Coleridge described him as “the most inventive of philosophical men… he thinks a new train on every subject.” In his biography of Darwin, Hesketh Pearson said, “There is hardly an idea and hardly an invention in the world of to-day that he did not father or foresee, from the philosophy of Mr. Bernard Shaw to the phonograph of Mr. Thomas Edison, from eugenics and evolution to aeroplanes and submarines, from psycho-analysis to antiseptics.” Among the unpatented inventions credited to Darwin were the flushing toilet, weather monitoring machines, a copying machine, the steering wheel for carriages (which would be adapted for cars 170 years later), a rocket engine and a speaking machine manufactured to recite the Lord’s Prayer.

Darwin believed that the point of life was to change the world, not just interpret it. He promoted industrial innovation in the Midlands, maintaining that mechanical inventions would make life better for everybody. He invented new types of windmills and carriages, and transformed British manufacturing by promoting canal systems and the use of steam power. He sought progress through the introduction of scientific techniques into agriculture, such as in his Phytologia (1800), where he recommended the use of chemical fertilisers and other similar innovations for the ripening of seeds, improvement of timber characteristics and enlargement of fruit. His contemplation of nature led to the first recorded explanations of photosynthesis and the formation of clouds, as well as a description of the progression of life from micro-organisms to civilised society in his 1803 poem The Temple of Nature, confirming his belief in a shared ancestry decades before his grandson Charles presented the Theory of Evolution in his On the Origin of Species in 1859. 

It was men like Erasmus Darwin who helped guide in an era of reason and virtue

These views were shared at a groundbreaking coming together of the greatest minds of his generation as part of the Lunar Society, an ad-hoc gathering founded by Darwin in order to facilitate the sharing of Enlightenment ideals. Meeting in Birmingham during the full moon, members jokingly referred to themselves as ‘Lunaticks,’ and while the relaxed nature of the society ensured no surviving records, the group, at varying times, included the likes of Thomas Percival, James Watt and Benjamin Franklin. This exchanging of ideas led to what is now known as the Midlands Enlightenment, a pivotal link of intellectual advancement between the earlier Scientific Revolution and the subsequent Industrial Revolution. Topics of discussion included experimental science, polite culture and practical technology. In short, the Lunar Society were looking at tangible ways to implement the abstract knowledge of the generation before them to a world in desperate need of modern reform. P M Dunn says of the group, “they were the most remarkable group of thinkers and inventors in the eighteenth century,” continuing, “which had a more potent effect upon civilisation than that of any other in history.” 

As Darwin grew older, his opinions became increasingly radical. He loathed war and castigated slavery, actively campaigning as an abolitionist and publicly praising the anti-slavery work of his friend Josiah Wedgwood. He had compassion for the poor and homeless, to whom he provided medical treatment without requesting a fee, and was even farsighted enough to argue against excessive taxation of the American colonies, the primary cause of the American Revolution. He widely endorsed the education of women, establishing a school in Ashbourne, Derbyshire for his two illegitimate children, Susanna and Mary, where female students were encouraged to learn ‘appropriate’ subjects like physiognomy, physical exercise, botany, chemistry, mineralogy, and experimental philosophy. A true republican at heart, he had little time for authority and declined an invitation to be a physician to King George III. Just six months after the French Revolution, during a time where the rest of Europe – not least of all Britain – was terrified that republican ideas would spread and topple ancient monarchies, he exclaimed to engineer James Watt, “Do you not congratulate your grandchildren on the dawn of universal liberty? I feel myself becoming all French both in chemistry and politics.”

His reputation as an atheist and republican saw his reputation suffer and, as a result, his work taken less seriously. He was widely ridiculed for suggesting that electricity might one day have practical uses, as well as his belief that women should be educated, lambasted for his stance of republicanism and democracy but, above all, despised for his outspoken views on dogmatic religion and the creation question. By the time he died in 1802, aged seventy, his reputation had been largely destroyed. And it was this destruction of his grandfather’s name that prevented Charles Darwin from publishing his own findings on evolution for so long, only to suffer the same ridicule and abuse himself. 

If Britain were ever to have its own list of Founding Fathers – the romanticised name given to the faction of men who helped drag the United States of America out from under the yoke of tyrannical British rule – ours would consist of men who ushered us out of a different kind of tyranny. Because it was men like Erasmus Darwin who helped guide in an era of reason and virtue, of science and tolerance, providing a light amidst the darkness of archaic, religious and social dogmatism that had served as the enemy of progress for so long.

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