Darwin’s Legacy

Image: Bust of Erasmus Darwin.

Image from: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield.

Photograph: David Remes (2003)

A new page in the life of Erasmus Darwin was opening, another start. It would be during the next twenty years of his life in Derby that his most important works and poems would be written and published – The Botanic Garden, Zoonomia, Phytologia and the Temple of Nature. They would influence young poets of the next generation, such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley. During Darwin’s lifetime his works would be translated into German and French, and published in Dublin, New York, Philadelphia, Leipzig and Paris. It was at that time that he would rejoice at the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, and then live through the ruin of the Lunar Society in the Birmingham Riots of 1791.

The youth of Erasmus Darwin, with its energy, optimism, and enthusiasm for scientific and medical research, discoveries, and mechanical inventions belongs to Lichfield. Here he left behind a rich legacy – the gratitude of his numerous patients, a tradition of scientific experiment, his botanic garden, the Botanical Society of Lichfield, and the charming house in Beacon Street where fascinating memories of Erasmus Darwin and his brilliant circle of friends are preserved.

Elizabeth Pole

Image: Silhouette of Elizabeth Pole with a dog.

Image from: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield (By kind permission of Jane Darwin).

Photograph: David Remes (2003).

Darwin’s interest in gardening might have been strengthened by Mrs Elizabeth Pole of Radburn Hall (Derby), the wife of Colonel Edward Sacherevel Pole. Darwin met her in 1777 when she brought her sick children to see the famous doctor. Elizabeth Pole was herself a talented gardener and, in Anna Seward’s words,

was then in full bloom of her youth and beauty. Agreeable features; the glow of health; a fascinating smile; a fine form, tall and graceful; playful sprightliness of manners; a benevolent heart, and maternal affection in all its unwearied cares and touching tenderness, contributed to inspire Dr. Darwin’s admiration, and to secure his esteem.”

Elizabeth Pole inspired Darwin to compose many charming poems:

“Farewell! A long farewell! – your shades among
No more these eyes shall drink Eliza’s charms;
No more these ears the music of her tongue!-
O! doom’d for ever to another’s arms!”

Colonel Pole died in 1780 and left her wealthy thirty-three year old widow. People thought that Darwin who was 15 years her senior, would have had no chance against the young officers and gentry who surrounded her. An amusing tease was the fine silhouette depicting Eliza playing with a frisky dog. According to the family tradition, the dog is supposed to be Erasmus.

However, she agreed to marry Darwin, and on the day before the wedding he wrote:

On, on, gay dance and jocund song
And lead the lazy hours along!..
Thou, beamy star of morning shine!
Tomorrow makes Eliza mine.

Their wedding took place at Radburn church on 6 March 1781. Unfortunately, Elizabeth refused to live in Lichfield. After the wedding, they left for Radburn, and later for Derby. Anna Seward wrote: “A handsome young widow, relict of Colonel Pole, by whom she had three children, drew from us, in the hymeneal chain, our celebrated physician, our poetic and witty friend.”

Darwin’s second marriage was also a very happy one. In addition to Darwin’s sons and daughters and Elizabeth’s own offspring, they would have seven children in the next nine years.

Darwin and Education

Image: A textbook belonging to Mary Parker with her signature and date, 1797 (Title page of G Neville Usher, The Elements of English Grammar  (London, 1786).

Image from: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield (By kind permission of Jane Darwin).

Photograph: David Remes (2003).

Darwin wrote A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools  for his two daughters, Susan and Mary Parker. He proposed a broad curriculum including modern languages, natural philosophy and science along with physical exercises and hygienic recommendations. A copy of his book can be seen in the museum.  One of the textbooks belonging to Mary Parker has also survived.

At that time many Lunar people subscribed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theories of education through freedom and kindness. Darwin’s book shows that although he shared these ideals, he also believed in systematic teaching. He was sensitive to Rousseau’s philosophy of a harmonious life in tune with nature. In 1766, Darwin met the French thinker who was staying in Staffordshire while in exile from France. He responded to Rousseau’s ideas by the creation of a botanic garden in a small valley a mile away from his house. According to Anna Seward, “not only with trees of various growth did he adorn the borders of the fountain, the brook and the lakes, but with various classes of plants, uniting the Linnean science with the charm of landscape.”   Darwin even founded the Botanical Society of Lichfield whose first task was to translate Carl Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae into English.

Darwin’s Daughters

Image: View in the Grounds of Ashbourne Hall, Derbyshire (Frontispiece of Erasmus Darwin, A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools (Derby, 1797). This provided the location for the girl’s school managed by Darwin’s two daughters by Mary Parker.

Image from: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield (By kind permission of Dr E D Barlow).

Photograph: David Remes (2003).

Darwin acknowledged his two daughters by Mary Parker, Susan (1772-1856) and Mary (1774-1859) as his own and brought them up in his home on equal terms with his legitimate children. He was particularly fond of them and was concerned over their education and future. They started their careers as governesses, but Darwin would later help them to set up a girls’ boarding school of their own on Brooke Boothby’s estate in Ashbourne, Derbyshire.

Mary Parker

Image: Elston Hall, Nottinghamshire the home of the Darwin family. Pen and Ink Drawing (1700).

Image from: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield. (Donated by Mrs Kindersley).  

In July 1770, the seventeen year old Mary Parker arrived in Lichfield from Elston, Darwin’s native home, where his mother still lived.  Mary was employed to look after the four year old Robert. It turned out that that Darwin and Mary Parker soon became attached to each other. She and Erasmus had two daughters: Susan in 1772 and Mary in 1774.

Darwin’s Sons

Image: Silhouette of Erasmus Darwin (right), playing chess with his son Erasmus (left).

Image from: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield (By kind permission of Jane Darwin).

Photograph: David Remes (2003).

Erasmus and Polly both were freethinkers and sceptical about religion. The three of five their children who survived the childhood were brought up with “no seeds of superstition”. They were “an inexhaustible fund of happiness” for their parents.

Polly’s early death in 1770 was a great shock to Darwin: “The dear Partner of all the Cares and Pleasures of my Life ceased to be ill – and I felt myself alone in the World!” Darwin was left to bring up his small sons, Charles (1758-1778), aged eleven, Erasmus (1759-1799), ten and Robert Waring (1766-1848), four. His sister Susannah agreed to come and help to look after the children and run the household.

Charles, the eldest, became a brilliant medical student at Edinburgh University, but died as a result of an infection contracted while was conducting a dissection. Erasmus became a lawyer and died tragically by drowning in 1799. Robert Waring trained as a doctor at Edinburgh and practised as a doctor in Shrewsbury where his son, Charles Darwin (1809-82) was born.

Home Life

Image: The hallway of Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield (reconstruction).

Photograph: David Remes (2003).

Despite Erasmus Darwin’s busy medical practice, meetings with scientific friends, research, experiments and inventions, there was still time for happy family pleasures.

Erasmus and Polly both enjoyed their married life. They often entertained guests, and kept open house. They both liked fine, costly objects and, thanks to Darwin’s successful medical practice, they were able to afford them. Their home was decorated with prints by Angelica Kauffmann framed at Soho Manufactory, ormolu wares by Matthew Boulton, and Wedgwood’s pottery. Darwin’s library contained expensive, fine editions printed by John Baskerville. A splendid portrait of Darwin by Joseph Wright of Derby, his patient and friend, found its place there in 1770.  Later it would be Erasmus Darwin to whom the first successful reproduction of the Portland Vase was given by Josiah Wedgwood.

Biological Evolution

Image: Image of Erasmus Darwin’s bookplate. Darwin added a Latin motto to the family arms of three scallop shells, E conchia omnia, which translates as Everything from shells. The motto expressed Darwin’s belief that all life was descended from a single ancestor.

Image from: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield (courtesy of Dr E D Barlow).

Photograph: David Remes (2003)

Darwin’s study of botany and geology, and deep interest in minerals and fossils led him to the idea of biological evolution and the descent of all life from a single microscopic ancestor. Later he would express this idea in poetic form:

“Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born, and nursed in Ocean’s pearly caves…
Thus the tall Oak, the giant of the wood,
Which bears Britannia’s thunders on the flood;
The Whale, unmeasured monster of the main;
The lordly Lion, monarch of the plain;
The Eagle, soaring in the realms of air,
Whose eye, undazzled, drinks the solar glare;
Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect, who scorns this earthy sod,
And styles himself the image of his God–
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point or microscopic ens!” 

Darwin was so excited by his theory that he added the motto E conchis omnia (Everything from shells) to the old family arms of three scalloped shells and reproduced it on his carriage and bookplate Unfortunately this was not approved by the clergy of Lichfield Cathedral, and Darwin had to remove the motto from his carriage as he could not openly insult the Church. It would be his grandson, the celebrated Charles Darwin, who later would develop and formulate the theory of evolution in his ‘Origin of Species’.

Inventions, the Commonplace Book and the Lunar Society

Image: Title page of Erasmus Darwin’s Commonplace Book.

Image from: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield. (By kind permission of English Heritage).

Photograph: David Remes (2003)

Darwin wrote down his medical observations in his Commonplace Book. Today it can be seen in the museum. The Commonplace Book also reflects the various scientific ideas, experiments and the inventions that occupied his mind – for example, a steam carriage and steering gear, a horizontal windmill, a canal lift, a speaking machine. Some of his inventions were in use in his own household – such as his copying machines, and also a speaking tube connecting his study with the kitchen. Recent archaeological finds in the cellar might be interpreted as traces of this unusual installation.

He would later express the excitement of his scientific dreams in poetic form in The Botanic Garden:

“Soon shall thy arm Unconquer’d steam! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on the wide-waving wings expanded bear
The flying-chariot through the fields of air.”

Models of some of his inventions are to be found in the museum.

His ability to make friends helped him to join up with people who shared his passion for science, philosophy, experiment, industry and new technology – such as Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Thomas Day, John Whitehurst, Josiah Wedgwood and Richard Lovell Edgeworth.  It was at Darwin’s house in Lichfield where in the 1760s the famous Lunar Society was formed, and here that their first meetings took place. In many ways the Lunar group was modelled on the American Philosophical Society. Its founding father, Benjamin Franklin, had been one of the earliest scientific friends and correspondents of Darwin. When in Britain he often visited Darwin in Lichfield.

The members of the Lunar group were united not only by their scientific and industrial interests, but also by their attitude to the political and social events of the time. Most of them actively supported the American colonists in their War of Independence. But their feelings were complicated by the existence of slavery in America and by the slave-trade. Thomas Day wrote the widely circulated poem The Dying Negro. Erasmus Darwin also later expressed strong abolitionist views:

“How Afric’s coasts thy craftier sons invade
With murder, rapine, theft, – and call it Trade!
The slave, in chains, on supplicating knee,
 Spreads his wide arms, and lifts his eyes to Thee;
With hunger pale, with wounds and toil oppress’d,
‘Are we not Brethen?’ sorrow choaks the rest.”

Medical Research and Dissection

Image: View of the medieval cellar, Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield.

Image from: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield

Photograph: David Remes (2003).

In the house he undertook serious scientific and medical research. On 23rd October 1762, the Birmingham Aris’s Gazette published the following advertisement:

“The body of the Malefactor, who is order’d to be executed at Lichfield on Monday the 25th instant, will be afterwards conveyed to the house of Dr Darwin, who will begin a Course of Anatomical Lectures, at Four o’clock on Tuesday evening, and continue them every day as long as the Body can be preserved; and shall be glad to be favoured with the Company of any who profess medicine or Surgery, or whom the love of Science may induce.”

It is not known exactly where in the house the dissection took place, but possibly it was in the cellar.

“Doctor Darwin – On the Road”

Image: Erasmus Darwin’s Visiting Card from Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield. ????

Image from: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield

4. “Doctor Darwin – On the Road”

Photograph: David Remes (2003)

It was from this house that he visited his numerous patients. Darwin’s appearance and visiting card were well known all around the Midlands. He calculated that he travelled about 10,000 miles a year, and once even received a letter addressed “To Doctor Darwin – On the Road”. His patients were the great and the good across the Midlands and included James Brindley, Brooke Boothby, James Watt and Josiah Wedgwood.

Darwin’s Medical Practice

Image: Page from Erasmus Darwin’s Prescription Book, showing a prescription for Brooke Boothby.

Image from: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield.

Photograph: David Remes (2003).

3. Darwin’s Medical Practice

Darwin lived in his Beacon Street house for more than 20 years. Here he carried on a successful and extensive medical practice, gradually becoming known as the best British physician of the day. In the words of James Keir:

“sympathy and benevolence were the most striking features. He felt very sensibly for others, and, from his knowledge of human nature, he entered into their feelings and sufferings in the different circumstances of their constitution, character, health, sickness, and prejudice.”

Some patients stayed in Darwin’s house for days and even weeks. The poor were treated free. Brooke Boothby wrote of Darwin’s house:

“whose ever-open door
Draws, like Bethesda’s pool, the suffering poor;
Where some fit cure the wretched all obtain,
Relieved at once from poverty and pain.”

Darwin’s Home

Image: The front of Erasmus Darwin House, Beacon Street, Lichfield, showing the neo-classical façade which Darwin created on the front of an older building. He lived in the house from 1758 until 1781. In the foreground is a plaque commemorating Darwin as the author of The Botanic Garden. The Cathedral and a row of houses in the Close are visible on the right.

Image from: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield.

Photograph: John James.

2. Darwin’s Home

Darwin lived in the Cathedral Close when he arrived in Lichfield in 1756. In the spring 1757 he met Mary (Polly) Howard (1740-1770), the seventeen year old daughter of a local lawyer, “a blooming and lovely young lady”.

“Then, peerless Fair! Whom all my Soul approves,
Esteems with Reason, and with rapture loves,
Indulgent hear thy Poet’s honest Plea,
And sometimes give one tender Thought on Me.”

They married on 30th December 1757 and soon bought a large half-timbered house in Beacon Street which became their happy family home.

The house appears to have been one of the oldest houses in Lichfield. Recent archaeological research has found traces of 13th century medieval construction. In the spacious cellar there are also architectural remains of store rooms which date from the post-Civil war period. In his turn, Darwin rebuilt the house. He added a fashionable neoclassical façade with large Venetian windows facing Beacon Street, and extended several rooms and the cellar. The house was separated from the street by a narrow gully, so Darwin built a bridge with Chinese paling across it and planted lilacs and roses in front of the house.

In 1999, the house was renovated and opened as the Erasmus Darwin Museum. The square at the back of the house has been developed as an 18th century garden of medicinal herbs.

Lichfield in the late 18th century

Image: View of Lichfield Cathedral and part of the Close from Erasmus Darwin House.

Image from: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield

Photograph: David Remes (2003)

1. Lichfield in the late 18th century

On 12th November 1756 the young Dr Erasmus Darwin arrived at Lichfield. He had recently graduated at St John’s College in Cambridge and the Medical School in Edinburgh. For a short while he had had a medical practice in Nottingham, but this turned out unsuccessfully. Lichfield was a fresh start for him.

Possibly it was not by pure chance that Darwin chose Lichfield. Although at this time there was little industry here, the city had prospered, both from the wealth of the clergy of the magnificent cathedral and also as an important coaching station on the main road from London to the northwest and Ireland. In the 17th century, Lichfield had been the birthplace of the scholar and collector Elias Ashmole. Daniel Defoe considered Lichfield the best town in the area for “conversation and good company”. In Darwin’s own time, Lichfield was associated with Dr Samuel Johnson, the famous actor David Garrick, and the young poet Anna Seward, the “Swan of Lichfield”. Furthermore, the Lichfield gentry were accustomed to scientific medicine: the respected and well-known doctors John Floyer (1649-1734) and Robert James (1705-1776) had earlier practiced there.

An “ever-open door”: Erasmus Darwin and Lichfield

Samuel Johnson described Lichfield as a “city of philosophers” where Erasmus Darwinwas the most prominent of an outstanding group of 18th century writers, medical men and intellectuals who were born in the city or lived locally.

Darwin was probably Britain’s most eminent doctor and George III tried to persuade him to leave Lichfield and become his personal physician. Darwin’s reputation, though, was built on other achievements. He was a philosopher, scientist and poet and contributed as a thinker to the international Enlightenment.

Lichfield provided the environment which enabled Darwin to secure wealth, a happy domestic life and the leisure to engage in creative activity. Inside the city and its surroundings he observed, investigated, debated and wrote.

This exhibition by Olga Baird explores Darwin’s life and legacy in Lichfield.