Visiting Lichfield: Erasmus Darwin’s house

When Erasmus Darwin – grandfather of Charles – set out on the road to see his patients, he left nothing to chance. One witnessed in 1788 “a pile of books reaching from the floor to nearly the front window of the carriage and also a writing case and paper, a knife, fork and spoon and a hamper containing fruit and sweetmeat, cream and sugar.” Although apparently he had eaten most of the contents of hamper on the 40 mile journey!

Darwin lived in Lichfield between 1756 and 1781 – then the cultural capital of the Midlands – in an attractive Grade II listed, Georgian property, today known as Darwin House, which is open to the public as a museum. But while he may have treated some patients here, Darwin also spent considerable time travelling on bumpy roads, often in appalling weather conditions to see unwell people in their own homes.

One letter was addressed to “Dr Darwin upon the road!” such was the distance that Darwin travelled in his carriage. It’s estimated in fact that he clocked up 10,000 miles a year. And his trusty horse Doctor followed behind his carriage, so if the roads became impassable and he could go no further, he rode the last miles on horseback to reach his patients.

Darwin was born in 1731 near Newark in Nottinghamshire and after attending school in Chesterfield, he studied at St John’s College in Cambridge and then Edinburgh Medical School. He qualified as a doctor in 1756 and set-up a surgery in Nottingham, but he struggled to attract patients and so later that year moved to Lichfield, where he found more success.

“I practice medicine in Lichfield, Staffordshire,” Darwin wrote to a friend soon after moving into the city. “I have a good house, a pleasant situation, a sensible wife and three healthful children and as much medical business as I can do with these days.”

Darwin House is in a lovely setting, with an attractive herb garden that features both medical and culinary herbs. And it must have the best view in Lichfield – the large window above the staircase overlooks the city’s splendid cathedral. It really is a picture post card spot.

Inside the house, Darwin’s many achievements over the course of his life are charted and explored. He probably spent most of his time as a doctor, but he also is known as an inventor, a poet and for making a string of discoveries from physics to plant nutrition.

Along with Mathew Boulton, Darwin co-founded the Lunar Society of Birmingham as a learned society of prominent Enlightenment figures and it’s almost certain that a number of meetings were held at Darwin House.

View from Darwin House of Lichfield Cathedral

Doctor and inventor

Given Darwin’s wide portfolio of interests it’s easy to lose sight that he probably spent most of his time working as a doctor. He devised new treatments for illnesses and is recognised as a pioneer of medical centrifugation. The fact that he was asked to be the personal physician of King George III – an opportunity he declined because he didn’t want to leave the Midlands – shows how highly regarded he was.

Darwin also took an interest in the importance of improving public health, adequate sewage disposal and urging good ventilation in health. He also impressed on his patients why a good exercise regime mattered.

But he was also an inventor. At Darwin House, entering one of the downstairs rooms is liking walking into a maverick’s workshop. Erasmus’s inventions are not only described on information boards, but there are also a number of replicas that you can try out for yourself.

I was drawn first to a mechanical device with bellows, leather tongues, reeds and pipes, which became known as speaking machine and was able to imitate the human voice, distinctly able to speak individual words. Then there is Darwin’s copying machine, which was used to make facsimiles of documents through a second pen mirroring the movements of the first one. It was able to make more accurate copies than a modern photocopier.

Darwin also developed a steering mechanism for carriages, which made journeys smoother and helped influence the innovation of steering in modern day cars. He created a new kind of horizontal windmill which was used in Wedgwood’s pottery factory for 13 years before being replaced by steam. Then there was Darwin’s canal lift – several were installed in the 1790s and the designed inspired another one in 1875 – which consisted of a water-filled box to elevate a barges, suspended by balanced by another box.

Not all of Darwin’s ideas were of course successful and many didn’t make it past the drawing board. He suggested, for example, a way of increasing the amount that could be carried in a wheelbarrow by using hydrogen balloons. But overall Darwin left his mark as an accomplished inventor.

Scientist and poet

While pursuing his career as a doctor and inventor, Darwin also took an interest in science. Controversially he believed that all living things are descended from a single ancestor. “All nature exists in a state of perpetual improvement,” he wrote.

After developing a new enthusiasm for botany, in 1777 he bought eight acres of land a mile away from his home and cultivated an ornamental garden. The herboretum served as a test-bed for his theories about plant life.

In 1779 he began his first major work, The Botantic Garden, a science poem which when published in two parts in 1789 and 1791 won him high praise as a poet and some drew parallels with Shakespeare.

After this he published two volumes of Zoonomia – his major theories on medicine and natural science. But it has been argued that his best work came with the publication of Phytologia in 1800. Subtitled the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening, it was a 600 page survey of plant life and agriculture. Darwin was the first to outline a full account of photosynthesis and he also the essential roles of nitrogen and phosphorus in plant nutrition.

Darwin’s final book, The Temple of Nature, was another nature poem and was published posthumously in 1803.

Family tragedy

For a man who achieved so much in his professional life, Darwin’s personal life was blighted by tragedy. Of the five children born to Darwin’s first wife, Mary Howard, whom he married in 1757, only three survived infancy. The eldest, Charles, died at the age of just 19 after he cut his finger while studying at Edinburgh Medical School, while his second son, Erasmus, became a lawyer and his third son, Robert, was a physician.

In 1770 Mary herself died following an illness at the age of 30 and Darwin was left to care for three children. Following his wife’s death he was comforted by 18-year-old Mary Parker, who gave him two daughters, Susan and Mary – born in 1772 and 1774 respectively. But then he met Elizabeth Pole, the wife of military hero Colonel Pole of Radburn Hall, and they married in 1781 – the year after her husband passed away.

The couple initially lived at Radburn Hall, a countryside mansion four miles west of Derby. While it was a peaceful location, it became apparent that it wasn’t the most convenient to run a medical surgery and so in 1783 they moved to a townhouse in Derby. Darwin and Elizabeth had seven children – one of whom died as a child.

After moving to Derbyshire in 1781, Darwin said he felt “cut off from the milk of science” and so he established the Derby Philosophical Society, which placed importance on building up a collection of scientific books.

Darwin died in 1802, leaving behind a sizeable legacy as a doctor, inventor, poet and scientist. Yes, he had his critics – not least a 560 page book called ‘Observations on the Zoonomia of Erasmus Darwin’ from Thomas Brown which attacked his philosophical and medical thinking. But given his radical ideas, it is perhaps no surprise that he was challenged.

Erasmus’s grandson, Charles, has turned out in history to be more famous. But Charles benefitted from the ground that Erasmus had laid on the origins and development of life, so the latter deserves more recognition. Erasmus gave the world so much, however he recognised as a true Midlander. He’s certainly well remembered in Lichfield.

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