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Erasmus Darwin (1731 - 1802)

Erasmus Darwin is one of the greatest underrated geniuses in history.

Erasmus Darwin was an accomplished scientist, physician, botanist, inventor, naturalist, best-selling author, philosopher and even poet. He maintained correspondences with many of the great thinkers and explorers of his day, including Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks. He developed his own theories, conducted exhaustive research to support his ideas, and did this all while maintaining one of the most successful medical practices in all of England.

Born at Elston Hall near Nottingham in 1731, he was educated at Chesterfield School then later at St. John's College at Cambridge. He went on to obtain his degree at Edinburgh Medical School, and then set up a very successful medical practice in Lichfield.

Decades, if not centuries, ahead of his time, Erasmus Darwin did groundbreaking research on plants, recognizing the function of photosynthesis and its great importance in the survival of all life. His meticulous translation of Linnaeus's works into English made them accessible to a much wider audience, and no doubt influenced the studies of many young botanists to come.

He was also a great advocate of biological evolution, and laid much of the theoretical groundwork that his grandson, Charles Darwin, would later use in his theory of evolution.

One of his greatest passions was invention, which he was positively compulsive about. His improved steering mechanism for carriages would survive the test of time, and would eventually be adapted for use in modern automobiles. His 'Talking Machine', essentially a mechanical larynx made of wood, silk, and leather, amazed and delighted his guests more than a century before Edison's phonograph, and his copying machine allowed him to duplicate documents long before anyone had heard of Xerox.

Erasmus Darwin published several books, the most notable of which were written in the form of poems, making them widely popular in his day. His accomplishments as a poet were such that he influenced the works of such literary greats as Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats.

So how could such a towering intellect be largely lost to the mists of time? Politics.

Darwin's forward thinking on matters of society, government and religion (he was a fervent believer in democracy, free love and educational reform), which made him popular in a peaceful and prosperous nation, were regarded with suspicion and even considered subversive during the Napoleonic wars. What little fame he received after that was merely as the subject of ridicule and satire.

Although Charles Darwin sought to reestablish his grandfather's good name, his own successes and controversies, and his daughter's prudish editing, would prevent the world from remembering Erasmus Darwin as one of the greatest minds humanity has ever produced.


Selected by the SciLinks program, a service of
the National Science Teachers Association.
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