Overview of the Life of Erasmus Darwin
Records of the Darwin family can be found in Elston church near Nottingham, north central England dating back as far as 1654. Erasmus was born at Elston Hall in 1731. He was the fourth son of Robert Darwin (1682-1754), a moderately successful lawyer, and Elizabeth Darwin (1702-1797, originally Elizabeth Hill). Elizabeth Darwin was a charismatic, intelligent woman with a fondness for reading and raising pigeons, (which interestingly play a part in the first chapter of "Origin of Species"). Robert Darwin inherited Elston hall and lived comfortably but never dedicated himself to the accumulation of wealth. He retired early to pursue an interest in archaeology and enjoy the simple pleasures of country life. Reading between the lines there is some suggestion of occasional impatience with his ever exuberant, energetic and scholastic wife, twenty years younger than he. In one litany he writes: "From a morning that do the shine, From a boy that drink the wine, From a wife that talk the Latin,
Good lord deliver me."
Erasmus was an inquisitive and inventive child who experimented with poetry, clocks, and electricity. His thirst for knowledge was matched only by his appetite for sweets, his dislike of exercise and his indifference towards what his older brothers called "rural diversions". One such "diversion" (a fishing trip) culminated with the older brothers tying Erasmus in a sack, allowing him to fall in the river, and almost drown. This may possibly have led to his reluctance to accompany them further.
At age ten he was sent to Chesterfield school, which he found most agreeable, and there he flourished both academically and in terms of his circumference. In a letter to his sister he reveals his wit with the ingenious arguments he uses to rationalize his inability to abstain from eating meat during lent: "...I have lived upon pudding, milk and vegetables all this lent; but don't mistake me, I don't mean I have not touched roast beef mutton, veal, goose, fowl etc. for what are these ? All flesh is grass !"
We also see here that Erasmus is developing a liking for cynical critique of religious ritual and an enduring love of food, which would inevitably lead to his future corpulence. Later in life, a semi-circular hole had to be cut in a dining table to accommodate his girth at meal times.
At nineteen he won a scholarship to attend St. John's College, Cambridge with his two older brothers. Supporting three sons at once was a financial strain on the family, (although apparently not enough to cause Robert Darwin to go back into practice), and during his college years, Erasmus learned a good deal of practical independence and frugality. He was awarded a BA in 1754 and went on to two years of medical college at Edinburgh.
There he became friends with James Keir, later a famous chemist and fellow member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. This group of liberal minded thinkers and industrialists met on moonlit nights to exchange ideas and develop new inventions. The Lunar society is widely recognized as a major catalyzing force behind north England's industrial revolution.
In 1756, armed with much erroneous 18th century medical knowledge, Erasmus was let loose on the people of Nottingham. At first, he could find no patients, so he moved to Lichfield, where he lived for twenty-five years. Soon after arriving, he was able to save the life of a young man from a leading family, whom other doctors had declared a hopeless case. This established his reputation in the area and his practice grew quickly. A few months later he met and married the eighteen year old Mary Howard who was described as "blooming and lovely" with a mind of "native strength". They enjoyed a happy marriage until Mary's premature death in 1770 age thirty-one.
They had four children that survived infancy including Robert Darwin (Charles Darwin's father). Their first son (also called Charles) went to medical school but died at eighteen after cutting himself while dissecting the brain of a child and contracting an infection.
Their second son, Erasmus Jr., became a lawyer. Erasmus Jr. had a tendency to be introspective, directionless and flighty, often leaving bills and paper-work unattended. One evening, prompted by his infuriated father (who had presumably grown tired of paying off Erasmus Jr.'s petty debts), he settled down to deal with a pile of unpaid bills and apparently finding the chore unbearable, ran from the house, jumped off a bridge and drowned himself. The Darwins tried to put some positive spin on the incident by implying to outsiders that the death was accidental, but the facts suggest otherwise.
It could be that this incident had some bearing on Robert Darwin's dismay at seeing his own son's directionlessness prior to the voyage on The Beagle. There is some suggestion that Mary Darwin, Erasmus Jr. and possibly Charles Darwin all suffered from some sort of heritable malady since they all shared some of the same symptoms. For Mary and Erasmus Jr., these included occasional bouts of depression or hysteria which may have led to Erasmus Jr.'s suicide. It has also been suggested that Charles Darwin's belief in the heritability of this disease may have led to some psychosomatic effects that worsened his own health after his return from the voyage of "The Beagle".
After the death of his first wife, Erasmus Darwin developed somewhat of a reputation for "his fondness for Venus", and had two illegitimate daughters by a Miss Parker. The girls were raised in his home and were the inspiration for a book Darwin authored on female education. The sisters went on to start a boarding school of their own nearby. Erasmus enjoyed the company of several other women too and for a while continued a flirtation with an old friend and neighbor, a Miss Anna Seward who, partly as a result of Darwin's guidance, became a well-known poet herself. Although close for many years they never married. It seems that Anna may have resented this a little since her memories of Darwin, written late in life are generally flattering but occasionally otherwise; when she talks of their personal relationship she describes a "cold shell of sarcasm" that surrounded him.
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