Scientist of the Day - Erasmus Darwin
Erasmus Darwin, physician, inventor, and poet, was born Dec. 12, 1731. Erasmus practiced medicine in Lichfield, in the English midlands, and was friends with many of the key figures of the Industrial Revolution, a number of whom banded together to form the Lunar Society of Birmingham. These included the manufacturer Matthew Bolton, steam-engine designer James Watt, the chemist James Keir, and the potter Josiah Wedgwood I, as well as Erasmus.
After he moved to Derby, out of reach of the Lunar Society’s monthly meetings, Erasmus began botanizing and writing poetry, and in 1789 he published The Love of the Plants, part 2 (but the first part published) of what would be called The Botanic Garden (we have both parts in the Library). In these works, as well as his subsequent Zoonomia, Erasmus revealed a penchant for evolutionary ideas, which was quite unusual for the late 18th century. There are several attractive engravings of plants in The Botanic Garden; we show here a Venus flytrap and a shooting star (first and second images above). The most unexpected image in the book is an engraving of the Portland vase, which was at the time in the hands of Josiah Wedgwood, who was trying to copy it in porcelain (third image above).
One of Erasmus' early patients was the painter Joseph Wright, who is sometimes called the first of the English Romantic painters. In 1770, Wright did a portrait of Erasmus, probably in exchange for medical services; there is a copy in the National Portrait Gallery, but one of the two originals was recently acquired by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and is now on display there (fourth image above).
Erasmus died in 1802, and so he never met his illustrious grandson, who was not born until 1809. There is a memorial plaque to Erasmus on Exeter Bridge in Derby (fifth image above).
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City