Dr. Erasmus Darwin

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 11:286-90.

ERASMUS DARWIN, a physician and poet, was a native of Elton, near Newark, Nottinghamshire, where he was born December 12, 1731. After going through the usual school education, under the Rev. Mr. Burrows, at the grammar-school at Chesterfield, with credit, he was sent to St. John's college, at Cambridge. There he only continued until he took his bachelor's degree in medicine, when he went to Edinburgh to complete his studies; which being finished, and having taken the degree of doctor in medicine, a profession to which he was always attached, he went to Lichfield, and there commenced his career of practice. Being sent for, soon after his arrival, to Mr. Inglis, a gentleman of considerable fortune in the neighbourhood, who was ill with fever, and in so dangerous a state that the attending physician had given up the case as hopeless, the doctor had the good fortune to restore him to health. This gave him so high a degree of reputation at Litchfield, and in the neighbouring towns and villages, that his competitor, who was before in considerable practice, finding himself neglected, and nearly deserted, left the place. Dr. Darwin soon after married miss Howard, the daughter of a respectable inhabitant of Lichfield, by which he strengthened his interest in the place. By this lady he had three sons, who lived to the age of manhood; two of them he survived; the third, Dr. Robert Waring Darwin, is now in considerable practice as a physician at Shrewsbury. In 1781, our author, having married a second wife, removed to Derby, where he continued to reside to the time of his death, which happened on Sunday the 18th of April, 1802, in the seventieth year of his age. Six children by his second lady, with their mother, remain to lament the loss of him.

The doctor was of an athletic make, much pitted with the small-pox. He stammered much in his speech. He had enjoyed an almost uninterrupted good state of health until towards the conclusion of his life, which he attributed, and reasonably, to his temperate mode of living, particularly to his moderation in the use of fermented liquors. This practice he recommended strenuously to all who consulted him. Miss Seward, from whose Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin these notices are principally taken, gives him the credit of having introduced habits of sobriety among the trading part of Lichfield, where it had been the custom to live more freely before he went to reside there. His frequent journies into the country on professional business, contributed also in no small degree to the preservation of his health and his faculties, which latter remained unimpaired to the day of his death. Ills death was sudden, occasioned by a fit of what he was used to call angina-pectoris, which he had several times experienced, and always relieved by bleeding plentifully.

As Dr. Darwin was a votary to poetry, as well as medicine, he occasionally sent his effusions in that way, to one or other of the monthly publications, but without his name, conceiving, from the example of Akenside and Armstrong; that the reputation he might acquire by his poetry, would operate as a bar to his advancement in the practice of medicine. His "Botanic Garden," in which he celebrates what he calls the "Loves of the Plants," the first of his poems to which he put his name, was not published until 1781; when his medical fame was so well established as to make it safe for him to indulge his taste in any way he should chase. Besides, the poem was so amply furnished with notes, containing the natural history, and accounts of the properties of plants, that it did not seem very alien from his profession. The Botanic Garden is comprised in two parts. In the first the author treats of the economy of vegetables, in the second of the loves of the plants. The novelty of the design, the brilliancy of the diction, full of figurative expressions, in which every thing was personified, rendered the poem for some years extremely popular. But the fame which it acquired has in a great degree subsided, and it is now little noticed. It is probable, that an ingenious little poem, "The Loves of the Triangles," published in a monthly journal, which is a happy imitation of the Darwinian manner, contributed to its decline.

In 1793, the author published the first volume of "Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life," 4to. The second volume, which completed the author's plan, was printed in 1796. As the eccentric genius of the author was known, great expectations were formed of this work, the labour, we were told, of more than twenty years. It was to reform, or entirely new model, the whole system of medicine, professing no less than to account for the manner in which man, animals, and vegetables are formed. They all, it seems, take their origin from living filaments, susceptible of irritation, which is the agent that sets them in motion. Archimedes was wont to say, "give me a place to stand on, and I will move the earth," such was his confidence in his knowledge of the power of the lever. Our author said, "give me a fibre susceptible of irritation, and I will make a tree, a dog, a horse, a man." "I conceive," he says, Zoonomia, vol. 1. p. 492, "the primordium, or rudiment of the embryon, as secreted from the blood of the parent, to consist in a single living filament, as a muscular fibre, which I suppose to be the extremity of a nerve of loco-motion, as a fibre of the retina is the extremity of a nerve of sensation; as, for instance, one of the fibrils which compose the mouth of an absorbent vessel; I suppose this living filament, of whatever form it may be, whether sphere, cube, or cylinder, to be endued with the capacity of being excited into action by certain kinds o stimulus. By the stimulus of the surrounding fluid in which it is received from the male, it may bend into a ring,, and thus form the beginning of a tube. This living ring may now embrace, or absorb a nutritive particle of the fluid in which it swims, and by drawing it into its pores, or joining it by compression to its extremities, may increase its own length or crassitude, and, by degrees, the living ring may become a living tube. With this new organization, or accretion of parts, new kinds of irritability may commence," &c.; whence, sensibility, which may be only an extension of irritability and sensibility further extended, beget perception memory reasons and, in short, all those faculties which have been, it seems, erroneously attributed to mind, for which, it appears, there is not the smallest necessity; and as the Deity does nothing in vain of course such a being does not exist. It would be useless to enter into a further examination of the Zoonomia, which has long ceased to be popular; those who wish to see a complete refutation of the sophisms contained in it will read with satisfaction, "Observations on the Zoonomia of Dr. Darwin, by Thomas Brown, esq." published at Edinburgh in 8vo, in 1798. In 1801, the author published "Phytologia, or the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening;" but the public, tired with the reveries of the writer, let this large book of 600 pages in 4to pass almost unnoticed. As little attention was paid to a small tract on Female Education, which had little indeed to attract notice. "It is," Miss Seward observes, "a meagre work, of little general interest, those rules excepted, which are laid down for the preservation of health." It is, however, harmless, a character that can by no means be accorded to the Zoonomia, as may be gathered from the strictures which the author of his life in the Cyclopaedia has justly passed on that work, and to which nothing, could have given even a temporary popularity but the activity of a small sect to whom the author's political and religious, or rather irreligious principles, were endeared. His son, Charles Darwin, who died at Edinburgh the 15th of May, 1778, while prosecuting his studies in medicine, deserves to be noticed for having discovered a test distinguishing pus from mucus, for which a gold medal was adjudged him by the university. "As the result of numerous experiments," he says, "when any one wishes to examine the matter expectorated by his patient, let him dissolve a portion of it in vitriolic acid, and another portion of it in caustic alkaline lixivium, and then add pure water to both solutions; if there is a precipitation in each solution, it is clear the expectorated matter is pus; if there is no precipitation, the matter is simply mucus." Mr. Darwin left an unfinished essay on the retrograde motion of the absorbent vessels of animal bodies in some diseases. This was, some time after the death of the young man, published by his father, together with the dissertation for which he had obtained the prize medal.