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Polymath whom history has consigned to archives; LOCAL HISTORY Erasmus Darwin might be the grandfather of Charles, but his achievements were also great.


Life was pretty good to Erasmus Darwin. There were two happy marriages, nine healthy children, countless friends and a comfortable income, based around a successful career as a medical practitioner.

Here he lies, they might have said when they finally laid him to rest, a poet and a philosopher, a scientist and an inventor.

History, on the other hand, has not been quite so generous. His inventions didn't change the world, his medical ideas were superceded, and his poetry today lies unread.

He is best known - ignomy of ignominies - simply as the grandfather of a far more famous Darwin. Such are the vagaries of time and celebrity.

Yet Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) of Lichfield was arguably the most brilliant mind of his age, and if that overused tag of genius could be applied to anyone, it could be given to him.

Don't take my word for it; the poet Coleridge (something of a polymath himself) described Darwin as having "a greater range of knowledge than any other man in Europe".

But with genius often comes (cf Leonardo da Vinci) an interest in everything, and a disinclination to take anything to its conclusion (cf also Leonardo).

To say that Darwin's ideas were ahead of their time is an understatement. He was outlining the trick of evolution years before his grandson; he first described photosynthesis and proposed the idea of the Big Bang; he broke with the Lunar Society in abandoning the theory of phlogiston.

He had a keen interest in geology, systems of transport, mechanics, languages, steam power . . . The list is endless.

Yet perhaps the most endearing feature of the man was the least public. Erasmus Darwin was one of the most entertaining letter writers of the 18th century.

All the Lunar Society members were prodigious writers of letters. It was, after all, their only means of direct communication, other than meeting up.

The correspondence of Matthew Boulton and James Watt alone fills countless boxes in Birmingham City Archives, and so regularly did they write that it is possible to construct itineraries for them, simply from where they despached mail.

But only in the case of Darwin has all the correspondence been collected and published.

This has much to do with the considerable efforts of Desmond King-Hele, who has been championing the cause of Darwin senior for many years now.

What first appeared as a selection of correspondence, both from and to the man, has now become The Collected Letters of Erasmus Darwin is published by Cambridge University Press, pounds 90. The cost, I have to say, is alarmingly high.

Darwin's letters deserve a wider audience, but they will hardly find one at this price.

Darwin was writing for practically the whole of his life. The first letter in the book is an epistle in rhyming couplets sent to his sister, Susannah.

It concludes: "Wherefore, to end my senseless rhyme and jarring, I now conclude, your brother, Erasmus Darwin."

That was written at the age of 15.

Fifty five years later, on April 17 1802, Erasmus was still writing, this time to his long-standing friend (and fellow Lunatick), Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who was over in Ireland.

In it Darwin commented on the troubles in Ireland, and spoke of his family's recent move to Breadsall Priory in Derbyshire. There was an invitation to Edgeworth and his daughter to visit them.

The letter was never completed, for Darwin died suddenly the following morning.

One of the servants - Sophie Mainwaring - took up the unfinished letter, added a few sentences of explanation, and sent it anyway.

Sandwiched in between are something like 450 letters from his pen; so many, in fact, that only one side of the correspondence is published here.

Though many of the replies (and the letters Darwin was answering) also survive, they would make for another book at least. Such a companion volume would be welcome, but it would undoubtedly show that no one wrote quite like Erasmus.

Take this one, for example, sent to Matthew Boulton in January 1782: "Dear Boulton, Whether you are dead and breathing inflammable air below; or dephlogisticated air above; or whether you continue to crawl upon this miry globe, measuring its surface with your legs instead of compasses, and boring long galleries, as you pass along, through its dense heterogeneous atmosphere . . . As I am alive now, I cannot recollect how I meant to finish this long period . . ."

And coming down from his high poetic horse (having forgotten how he intended to continue), Darwin asks Boulton for the pounds 200 he lent him five years earlier.

Or there's this one, sent to James Watt the previous year. It is one of the many apologies Darwin was obliged to write for not attending a meeting of the Lunar Society.

The work of an 18th-century physician, it seems, was never done.

"Dear Mr Watt, You know there is a perpetual war carried on between the Devil and all holy men. Sometimes one prevails in an odd skirmish or so, and sometimes the other.

"Now you must know this said Devil has play'd me a slippery trick, and I fear prevented me from coming to join the holy men at your house, by sending the measles with peripneumony amongst nine beautiful children of Lord Paget's.

"For I must suppose it is the work of the Devil? Surely the Lord could never think of amusing himself by setting nine innocent little animals to cough their hearts up?"

This letter was despached from Beaudesert, the family seat of Lord Paget. No doubt Darwin was stuck there until the epidemic abated.

But much of the time Erasmus was writing on the hoof, dashing off letters as he moved back and forth between patients, " . . . while I, I by myself I, imprison'd in a post chaise, am joggled, and jostled, and bump'd and bruised along the King's high road, to make war upon a pox or a fever."

Not surprisingly, then, Darwin devoted considerable mental efforts to improving the quality of carriages, designing an improved steering mechanism and mulling over the bumpiness of the ride.

As he wrote to Dr Johann Reimarus back in 1756: "To hang a coach so easy that a person may read in it a small print would be of great use and pleasure; none are so yet."

This was Darwin's second letter to Reimarus: the first had been written in Latin, presumably because of the German doctor's poor standard of English.

So quirky and individual was Darwin's Latin, however, that I suspect Reimarus begged him to stick to his native tongue in future correspondence.

One of the things that make Darwin's letters so readable (then as now) is the absence of small talk.

What greetings and gossip he has is usually relegated to the final sentence or two. The openings are, in general, a case of vertical take-off.

His letter to Benjamin Franklin of July 1772 begins like this: "Dear Sir, I was unfortunate in not being able to go to Birmingham till a day after you left it.

"The apparatus you constructed with the bladder and funnel I took into my pond the next day, whilst I was bathing, and filled the bladder with the unmixed air that rose from the muddy bottom, and tying it up, brought it home, and then pricking the bladder with a pin, I applied the flame of a candle to it at all distances, but it showed no tendency to catch fire."

How the people of Lichfield reacted to what their doctor was up to is not recorded. Darwin would not have noticed: his mind was on muddier matters.

History has not been generous. He is best known - ignomy of ignominies - simply as the grandfather of a far more famous Darwin. Such are the vagaries of time and celebrity

Next week, Chris Upton looks at the life of Robert Hancock, engraver and painter.


Erasmus Darwin was a brilliant polymath, but his achievements are not recognised today; right, his friend Richard Lovell Edgeworth to whom he wrote frequently; Erasmus Darwin's home in Lichfield
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 31, 2007
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