By Dr M

Erasmus Darwin
Erasmus Darwin

Advent botany couldn’t be advent botany without botanists – and amongst them are a number of significant “advent botanists”, those born in the days of advent and Dr M’s first offering on this theme is Erasmus Darwin.

Born 12 December 1731, Erasmus is best known as grandfather of Charles Darwin. But Erasmus made significant scientific and other contributions in his own right as one of the key thinkers of the English Midlands Enlightenment (The Lunar Society), he was also a natural philosopher, physiologist, slave-trade abolitionist, inventor and poet.

A larger-than life character in more ways than one, the life of Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was quite the botanical soap opera, you really couldn’t make it up!

Amongst his numerous achievements:

  • Married twice, had an in-between mistress, fourteen children and dozens of lifelong friends;
  • Was asked by King George III to be his personal physician, but declined;
  • Invented a shed-load of stuff including  a speaking machine, a copying machine and the steering technique used in modern cars;
  • Wrote The Loves of the Plants which includes vivid and highly sexualised poetry about reproduction in plants;
  • Was passionate about the abolition of slavery, wrote a treatise on the education of girls and was friendly, generous, sociable and full of teasing humour;
  • Paid little regard to authority and prescribed sex as a cure for hypochondria;
  • Expounded a coherent theory of evolution of species from a common ancestor in a poem written in 1789;
  • He enjoyed food so much he had a semi-circle cut out of his dining-table to accommodate his bulk!

His home in Lichfield, Erasmus Darwin House, is now a museum dedicated to his life’s work and well worth a visit.

Amongst his botanical achievements Darwin formed the Lichfield Botanical Society to translate the works of the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus from Latin into English. This took seven years resulting in two publications: A System of Vegetables between 1783 and 1785, and The Families of Plants in 1787. In these volumes, Darwin coined many of the English names of plants that we use today.

Loves of Plants
Loves of Plants

Darwin then wrote The Loves of Plants a long poem, which was a popular rendering of Linnaeus’ works. Darwin also wrote Economy of Vegetation, and together the two were published as The Botanic Garden.

Darwin’s final long poem, The Temple of Nature was published posthumously in 1803. The poem was originally titled The Origin of Society. It is considered his best poetic work. It centres on his own conception of evolution. The poem traces the progression of life from micro-organisms to civilised society. The poem contains a passage that describes the struggle for existence later made famous by grandson Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species.

For the full story see DrM Daughter of Advent Botany.


Further reading:

Desmond King-Hele Erasmus Darwin: a Life of Unequalled Achievement

Jenny Uglow: The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future, 1730-1810

All images for this post provided by Dr M.

Check out Dr M’s previous posting on Erasmus Darwin with lots of extra information and links here.

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