Dr. Erasmus Darwin

Francis William Blagdon, "Biographical Sketches: Dr. Erasmus Darwin" Flowers of Literature for 1803 (1804) 15-23.

DR. ERASMUS DARWIN was the son of a private gentleman, near Newark, in Nottinghamshire he came to Litchfield to practise physic, in the autumn of the year 1756, at the age of twenty-four; bringing high recommendations from the university of Edinburgh, in which he had studied, and from that of Cambridge, to which he belonged [Author's note: The following biographical notice is principally abridged from the recent and amusing Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin, by Anna Seward; memoirs which are neither varnished by partiality, nor darkened by prejudice].

He was somewhat above the middle size; his form athletic, and inclined to corpulence; his limbs too heavy for exact proportion; the traces of a severe small-pox; features and countenance, which, often when they were not animated by social pleasure, were rather saturnine than sprightly; a stoop on the shoulders, and the then professional appendage, a large, full-bottomed wig, gave, at that early period of life, an appearance of nearly twice the years he bore. Florid health, and the earnest of good humour; a sunny smile on entering a room, and on first accosting his friends, rendered, in his youth, that exterior agreeable, to which beauty and symmetry had not been propitious.

He stammered extremely; but whatever he said, whether gravely or in jest, was always well worth waiting for. Conscious of great native elevation above the general standard of intellect, he became, early in life, sore upon opposition, whether in argument or conduct, and always revenged by sarcasm of very keen edge: nor was he less impatient of the sallies of egotism and vanity. He seldom failed to present their caricature in jocose, but wounding, irony. Extreme was his scepticism to human truth. From that cause, he often disregarded the account his patients gave of themselves, and rather chose to collect his information by indirect enquiry, and by cross-examining them, than from their voluntary testimony. That distrust and that habit were probably favourable to his skill in discovering the origin of diseases, and thence to his preeminent success in effecting their cure.

Dr. Darwin avowed a conviction of the pernicious effects of all vinous fluid on the youthful and healthy constitution; and had an absolute horror of spirits of all sorts, however diluted. It is well known that his influence and example have sobered the county of Derby to such a degree, that intemperance in fermented fluid of every species is almost unknown amongst its gentlemen.... Professional generosity distinguished Dr. Darwin's medical practice. Diligently, in Litchfield, did he attend to the health of the poor; and, afterwards, at Derby, he supplied their necessities by food, and all sort of charitable assistance. In each of those towns, his was the cheerful board of almost open-housed hospitality, without extravagance or parade. Generosity, wit, and science were his household gods.

....A few weeks after his arrival in Litchfield, in the latter end of the year 1756, he displayed successfully, in a remarkable cure, the skill, spirit, and decision, which marked the long course of his practice; and thus he was brought into immediate and extensive employment. Ignorance and timidity, superstition prejudice, and envy, sedulously strove to attach to his practice the terms, rash, experimental, theoretic. But the strength of his, mind, fortitude unappalled, and the perpetual success which attended this great man's deviations from the beaten track, enabled him to shake those mists from his reputation, as the lion shakes to air the dew-drops on his mane.

In 1757, he married Miss Howard. A mind which had native strength; an awakened taste for the works of imagination; ingenuous sweetness; and delicacy, animated by sprightliness, made her a fascinating companion to a man of talents so illustrious: but, alas! upon her early youth, and a too-delicate constitution, the frequency of her maternal situation had probably a baneful effect. The potent skill, and assiduous care of him, before whom disease daily vanished from the frame of others, could not expel it radically from that of her he loved. It was kept, however, at bay during thirteen years. Mrs. Darwin closed her existence at the latter end of the summer 1770, after having spoken with fervour to two intimate female friends upon the distinguished happiness of those years. "Do not weep for my impending fate," said the dying angel, "Dr. Darwin has prolonged my days, and he has blessed them."

Dr. Johnson was several times at Litchfield, while Dr. Darwin was one of its inhabitants. They had one or two interviews, but never afterward sought each other: mutual and strong dislike subsisted between them.

Dr. Darwin's distinguished power of disclosing the arcana of nature, enabled him to explore and detect the fallacy of many received and long established opinions. Convinced by deep thought and philosophic experience, that mankind received so many prejudices for truth, he looked to jealously at all its most revered and sacred axioms. "His understanding," according to Mr. Fellows's observation, "had some of the properties of the microscope; he looked with singularly curious and prying eyes into the labyrinth of nature; he was acquainted with more links in the chain of second causes than had probably been known to any individual who went before him; but that he dwelt so much, and so exclusively on second causes, that he too generally seemed to have for gotten that there is a first."

In the year 1781, Dr. Darwin, never handsome nor personally graceful, with extremely impeded utterance; with hard features on a rough surface; older much in appearance than in reality; lame and clumsy, married the widow of Colonel Pole, yet in her summer bloom, though surrounded by young rivals, whose fortunes were affluent: fox-hunting esquires, dashing militaries, could speak their own passions, but could not immortalize her charms. This lady, sensible to the attachment of a man of genius, had taken a dislike to Litchfield. Dr. Darwin then removed directly to Derby, where his reputation, and the unlimited confidence of the public, followed him, and would have followed him, to the metropolis, had he chosen to remove to it.

From that time, his limited biographer can only trace the outline of his remaining existence; but Mr. Denhurst Bilsbury, his pupil in infancy, his confidential friend, and frequent companion through ripened youth, is now writing, at large, the life of Dr. Darwin, who once more became a happy husband with a second family of children springing fast around him.

Dr. Darwin's renown, as a physician, increased as time tolled on, and his mortal life declined from its noon. Patients resorted to him, more and more, from every part of the kingdom, and often from the continent. Wealth must have flowed on rapidly beneath employment of unprecedented extent. The sweet temper and benevolence of that long-adored wife, for whose sake he had changed his sphere of action; the numerous young family which rose and bloomed around him, rendered the cares of his hearth not less auspicious to Darwin than he had found the gifts of fortune and the voice of renown.

....Sunday, the 18th of April, 1802, deprived Derby and the encircling counties, of Dr. Darwin; the lettered world of his genius. In one hour was extinguished that vital light, which, the preceding hour, had shone in flattering brightness promising duration; that light, which, through half a century, had diffused its radiance and its warmth so widely; that light, in which penury had been cheered, in which science had expanded, to whose orb poetry had brought all her images, before whose influence disease had continually retreated, and death so often turned aside his leveled dart.

To many rich presents, which nature bestowed on the mind of Dr. Darwin, he added the seducing, and often dangerous, gift of a highly poetic imagination; but he remembered how fatal that gift professionally became to the young physicians, Akenside and Armstrong. Thus, through the first twenty-three years of his practice as a physician, Dr. Darwin, with the wisdom of Ulysses, bound himself to the medical mast, that he might not follow those delusive syrens, the Muses, or be considered as their avowed votary. Occasional little pieces, however, stole, at seldom-occurring periods, from his pen; most of these minute gems have stolen into newspapers and magazines. The following epitaph has never been printed, and has met his biographer's eye in a collection of manuscript poetry: it bears Dr. Darwin's signature.

Thy trembling hills, Quebec, when victory trod,
Shook her high plume, and wav'd her banner broad;
Saw Wolfe advance, heard the dire din of war,
And Gallia's genius shrieking from afar;
With fatal haste the astonish'd goddess flew,
To weave th' immortal chaplet for his brow.
Cypress she gather'd with the sacred bays,
And weav'd the asp of death among the sprays.
They fly they fly! th' expiring hero cried,
Hung his wreath'd head, thank'd the kind gods, and died.

Mr. Fellowes observes, with just and delicate criticism, of Dr. Darwin's poetry: "In perspicuity, which is one of the first excellences in poetic, as well as prose, composition, this author has perhaps few equals. He is clear, even when describing the most intricate operations of nature, or the most complex works of art; and there is a lucid transparency in his style, through which we see objects in their exact figure and proportion. But Dr. Darwin's poetry wants sensation; that sort of excellence which, while it enables us to see distinctly the objects described, makes us feel them acting on our nerves."

It may, however, be justly pleaded for his great work, the Botanic Garden, begun in 1779, that its ingenious and novel plan did not involve any claim upon the affections. It is a highly imaginative and splendidly descriptive poem, enriched noses, where explanations are found of every personified plant; its general history, its local situation, its botanic and common name.

Dr. Darwin's Zoonomia, commenced about the year 1771, but was not published sooner than 1794. It is an exhaustless repository of interesting facts, of curious experiments in natural productions, and in medical effects: a vast and complicated scheme of disquisition, incalculably important to the health and comforts of mankind, so far as they relate to objects merely terrestrial; throwing novel, useful, and beautiful light on the secrets of physiology; and though its doctrines are far from being infallible, it must spread the fame of its author over lands and seas, to whatever clime the sun of science has irradiated and warmed.

Soon after the publication of his Zoonomia, Dr. Darwin published a small tract on Female Education, to promote the success of two young women his relations, who had opened a female boarding-school at Ashbourn, in Derbyshire. The composition is by no means worthy of his abilities: it is a meagre work, of little general interest, except some good rules for promoting the health of growing children. It contains an odd recommendation of certain novels, of no eminence, to the perusal of young people.

Early in the year 1800, Dr. Darwin published another large quarto volume, intitled Phytologia, or the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening. He does here avow, as a regular system, that vegetables are remote links in the chain of sentient existence; that plants have vital organization, sensation, and even volition; and a number of instances are adduced which seem firmly to support the theory; from it some good may proceed, and no evil can flow. The affluent improver of his paternal, or purchased domain, if impressed with its belief, will feel his pleasure augmented in attending to the sustenance, the growth, and comfort of his trees, his grain, his shrubs, and his flowers.

The last work of Dr. Darwin, and a poetic one, is the Temple of Nature. It is like the setting emanation of this brilliant day-star, upon whose rays neither age, disease, nor a dread calamity he had endured in December 1799, have shed any mist or cloud.

When we consider a man of such immense professional engagements, as Dr. Darwin, composing and publishing such bulky works as the Zoonomia and the Pythologia; when we consider also his splendid poetic works, with their host of philosophic notes, there is surely no partiality for him, no want of candour to others, in maintaining, that it can only be from native littleness, or acquired warp of mind, where the greatness and energy of Dr. Darwin's genius and knowledge are denied.