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How Erasmus Darwin helped change our understanding of nature

Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, is the subject of a new book, Erasmus Darwin's Gardens: Medicine, Agriculture and the Sciences in the Eighteenth Century (Woodbridge; Boydell Press, 2021), by Paul Elliott, University of Derby Professor of Modern History.

While much attention has been given to Derby and Lichfield doctor Erasmus's poetry, Professor Elliott's study makes full use of his published works and other sources to investigate the role of gardens in his life, and how these served as a laboratory for his studies of agriculture, horticulture, botany and medico-botany. It argues, just as the role of gardens and plants in Charles's evolutionary theories have been relatively neglected, so Erasmus's green-fingered passions have not received the attention they deserve.

By Professor Paul Elliott - 30 June 2021

A man of many talents

An evolutionary thinker like his grandson, Erasmus Darwin is probably most famous as a founder member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and the author of the Botanic Garden, an epic poem with philosophical notes in two volumes: the Loves of the Plants (1789), which enthralled and scandalised late-Georgian society, and The Economy of Vegetation (1791). He also founded the Derby Philosophical Society in 1783.

With its poetical tales of amorous plants, gods and goddesses and numerous mythological beings, and essay-length scholarly notes about everything from shooting stars to steam engines, the Botanic Garden made him, for a short time, the most famous British poet, stimulating a generation of writers including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Darwin was a physician (doctor), polymathic enlightenment natural philosopher (scientist), and writer who practised in medicine across the English midlands for nearly half a century, living in Lichfield and Derby. However, he was also, as the book shows, a passionate gardener and horticulturist who delighted in everything from the colours, exudations, smells and structures of plants, to hoary ancient oaks in Midlands forests and parks.

Seeing parallels in plant and animal life

Partly stimulated by his medical education and practice which made extensive use of plant medicines, Darwin created a botanical garden near Lichfield - which inspired his poem - and kept other gardens, including an orchard and what he called, only half-jokingly, his ‘farm’ in Derby.

Drawing upon his experiences as a doctor treating patients of all ages and social classes, his botanical studies and extensive knowledge of - and interconnections with - European and North American Enlightenment networks, Darwin saw many parallels between animals, plants and humans, and he broke down many of the boundaries thought to exist between humans and other living creatures. This, however, was controversial, especially in the febrile political climate following the French Revolution in 1789 during the years of warfare and reaction.

However, the many similarities that Darwin saw between animal and plant bodies helped him to write Zoonomia (1794/96), an ambitious medical treatise which he had been working on in-between patient consultations since the 1770s, and Phytologia (1800), a major study of agriculture, horticulture and gardening.

a sketch of a foxglove, frog bit and fumitory
Foxglove sketches, from The Family Herbal by John Hill, 1812. Darwin helped pioneer the medical use of foxglove along with his Lunar Society friend William Withering.

Making new ideas more accessible

Stimulated by the changing landscapes and environments of town and country, and the great changes under way in agriculture and industry, and supported by social networks centred upon Lichfield and Derby, Darwin eagerly exchanged ideas about plants, animals and their diseases with members of his family, patients, friends, farmers, fellow doctors and huntsmen.

For example, he discussed ploughing with the celebrated Thomas William Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, or ‘Coke of Norfolk’, livestock breeding with Hugo Meynell, the most famous huntsman in the English counties, and the subterranean habitations of moles with the local mole catcher at the Darwin family seat at Elston, in Nottinghamshire.

Darwin shared his gardening, botanical, horticultural and agricultural interests with some of his Lunar Society friends, especially the physicians William Withering and Jonathan Stokes, and the industrialist Matthew Boulton. In Lichfield, Darwin founded a small botanical society with Brooke Boothby and William Jackson, which translated works by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus into English to make them more accessible, and, through Jackson, took over the botanical garden.

Another key member of Darwin’s Lichfield circle was his close friend the poet Anna Seward, who lived in the Bishop’s Palace on The Close, and the two stimulated each other’s writing. Darwin encouraged Anna with her poetry and she, in turn, helped him to start composing the Botanic Garden, whilst Anna’s Memoirs of the Life of Dr Darwin (1804) is valuable as the only full biography written by a contemporary.

Erasmus Darwin
Erasmus Darwin

Transforming the understanding of nature

Erasmus Darwin’s Gardens provides the first sustained analysis of the places, practices and ideas surrounding Darwin’s horticulture and agriculture, showing how much these endeavours inspired his evolutionary ideas. We see the extent to which the creatures of Darwin’s books and poems fight tenaciously for their lives, competing in a deadly struggle for existence, succeeding in the face of disease or succumbing to the arrows of adversity. In death, they became essential sources of nutriment for future generations, as the constituent substances of their bodies are dissipated into soil and air.

Darwin shows how successive generations of trees and plants absorb nutrients from the soil and atmosphere, which are then transformed in the living laboratory of their vegetable organs and flesh into the vital fluids which drive their lives, loves and pleasures.

The book underlines how passionate and curious Darwin was about the natural world. In fact, his fascination with nature was equal to that of his contemporary, Rev Gilbert White, the Hampshire clergyman whose best-selling Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne (1789) became the most well-known hymn to the glories of nature in the English language. Equally, it bears comparison with his grandson Charles’s delight in the ‘grandeur’ of life as expressed in The Origin of Species (1859), with its ‘endless forms’ from simple beginnings, ‘most beautiful and most wonderful’.

Like his grandson, Darwin marvelled at the plenitude of swarming insects, the transformations of living creatures through ‘millions of ages’, and the behaviour of domestic pets such as caged birds, dogs and cats.

Seeing his garden bees at war with other colonies, he sought to bring peace by moving the location of his hives and changing the design of their entrances.

Observing the behaviour of pigs on his Derby farm led Darwin to argue that their intelligence had been underestimated, while seeing the growth of mushrooms from horse dung deposited on the ground in Derby’s tan yards encouraged him to emphasise similarities between fungi and animal and plant bodies.

From observations of vegetable bodies to the use of plant ‘bandages’ in his orchard and electrical machines to hasten the germination and growth of plants to what his contemporaries saw as extraordinary studies of vegetable ‘brains’, nerves and sensations, this book shows very clearly how Erasmus Darwin’s gardening and horticultural experiences transformed his understanding of nature.

a red-brick two-storey house with arched windows set behind a wall and low trees
Erasmus Darwin's former home, now a museum, in Lichfield

Appreciating ecological interdependency

Applying his mind to agriculture and gardening stimulated and challenged Darwin’s understanding of medical ideas and practices, provoking insightful investigations into the environmental causes of diseases, how plants and animals were classified, the organic chemistry of the living world, the ways in which living beings had evolved and the massive potential for new medicines and foodstuffs offered by plants and fungi.

Though always conscious of the raw brutality of nature, red in tooth and claw, like James Lovelock’s formulation of the Gaia hypothesis, Darwin’s studies of life encouraged him to emphasise the interconnections of what he called the ‘economy of nature’ and re-affirm an ultimately optimistic progressive social and political perspective.

As we face profound challenges emerging from a global pandemic and a looming climate emergency, like Darwin we too can re-affirm – and be inspired by – a renewed appreciation of the ecological interdependency of the terraqueous globe’s multifarious living creatures.

About the author

Paul Elliott

Professor Paul Elliott
Professor of Modern History

Paul is a Professor of Modern History and Research Lead for the Humanities.

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