Erasmus Darwin Chronology & Major Publications

Note: In order to follow the career of Erasmus Darwin, I found it necessary to tease a chronology out of the various biographies by Desmond King-Hele. The following is the result of this endeavor.


1731Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was born 12 December at Elston (near Nottingham). He was the youngest of 7 seven children, 5 sons and two daughters, all of whom survived from 57 to 92 years. His father, Robert Darwin, was a lawyer. His mother, nee Elizabeth Hall, was 20 years younger than her husband and lived to the age of 95.
1750Entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, in the Fall.
1753Entered Edinburgh Medical School, the preeminent medical school in Britain, in the Fall. He returned to Cambridge and took the degree of MB (Bachelor of Medicine) in June 1755. Whether Erasmus Darwin did or did not have the formal degree of MD is not known.
1756 Attempted to set up medical practice in Nottingham; it failed. In November Erasmus Darwin moved to Lichfield. A few weeks after his arrival, he, with a novel course of treatment, restored the health of a young gentleman whose death seemed inevitable. This insured his success in the new locale.
1757Married Mary Howard (Polly; died 30 June 1770, aged 30). They had 4 sons and one daughter:
Charles, 1758
Erasmus, 1759
Elizabeth, 1763 (survived 4 months)
Robert Waring, 1766 (Charles Darwin’s father)
William Alvey, 1767 (survived 19 days)
1758 Erasmus and Polly moved to a large house on the western boundary of the Cathedral Close, looking across Beacon street to the open fields west of town.

Soon after moving to Lichfield, Darwin became friends with Matthew Bolton and John Whitehurst. In the later 1760s more friends were added to the group, which became the Lunar circle. Dr. William Small, who arrived in Birmingham in 1765, had the personality and inclination to nurture the Lunar circle of friends and to organize gatherings at the home of one or another of them. Small’s death in 1765 caused the members to agree to semiformal arrangements for meeting on a day set in advance. Thus the first official meeting was held on Sunday 31 December 1775 (King-Hele, 1999, p. 122).

The Lunar Circle: Dates indicate the year in which Darwin became friends with each of these persons.

  1. Erasmus Darwin

    Prior to 1765:

  2. Matthew Bolton, originally a buckle maker in Birmingham
  3. John Whitehurst of Derby, maker of clocks and scientific instruments, pioneer of geology

    After 1765:

  4. Josiah Wedgwood, potter 1765
  5. Dr. William Small, 1765, man of science, formerly Professor of Natural Philosophy at the College of William and Mary, where Thomas Jefferson was an appreciative pupil
  6. Richard Lovell Edgeworth, 1766, inventor
  7. James Watt, 1767, improver of steam engine
  8. James Keir, 1767, pioneer of the chemical industry
  9. Thomas Day, 1768, eccentric and author
  10. Dr. William Withering, 1775, the death of Dr. Small left an opening for a physician.
  11. Joseph Priestly, 1780, experimental chemist and discoverer of many substances.
  12. Samuel Galton, 1782, a Quaker gun maker with a taste for science, filled the ‘Darwin gap’ after Darwin moved to Derby.
~1771 Liaison with Mary Parker; they had 2 daughters:
Susanna, 1772
Mary, 1774
17816 March, married Elizabeth Pole, an attractive widow with one son and two daughters surviving. In 1781, Darwin moved to Elizabeth’s home, Radburn Hall, in the country approximately 4 miles east of Derby, and he resumed his medical practice. The distance was such that the move ended Darwin’s social activities in Lichfield and the Lunar circle, but it was in Derby that Darwin wrote his major works.

Erasmus and Elizabeth had 4 sons and 3 daughters:

Edward, 1782
Frances Anne Violetta, 1783
Emma Georgina Elizabeth, 1784
Francis Sacheverel, 1786
John, 1787
Henry, 1789
Harriot, 1790

Susanna and Mary Parker were also part of the Darwin household.

178217 December, Darwin moved to a house in Derby, while the rest of the family waited for renovations to be completed. On 14 January 1802, when the house was put up for sale, The Derby Mercury describe it as: ‘A large excellent DWELLING with a Brewhouse and all other convenient offices, a five-stalled stable, lounge, pleasure and kitchen gardens, the house pleasantly set oat the lower end of Full Street, Derby.’ (quoted in King-Hele, 1999, p. 340) Darwin’s move made travel to his medical patients much easier than it had been from rural Radburn Hall.
1783Founded the Philosophical Society of Derby. On 18 July 1784 Darwin gave the Presidential Address at his home; in 1784 the Society officially made the King’s Head Inn the place of its meetings. The Society endured for 70 years, when it merged with the Derby Museum and Library.
1802March, the Darwins moved to Breadsall Priory, a house bought by son Robert.
1802Erasmus Darwin died on Sunday, 18 April aged 70 at Breadsall Priory.

Major publications:

1783. A Botanical Society at Lichfield. A System of Vegetables, according to their classes, orders... translated from the 13th edition of Linnaeus’ Systema Vegetabiliium. 2 vols. Lichfield, J. Jackson, for Leigh and Sotheby, London.

1787. A Botanical Society at Lichfield. The Families of Plants with their natural characters...Translated from the last edition of Linnaeus’ Genera Plantarum. Lichfield, J. Jackson, for J. Johnson, London.

[ A coincidence: 1787. Robert Darwin (Erasmus Darwin’s brother). Principia Botanica: or, A concise and easy Introduction to the Sexual Botany of Linnaeus. Newark (England) Printed and sold by M. Hage.]

1789-1791. The Botanic Garden
     Part I, The Economy of Vegetation. London, J. Johnson, 1791
     Part II, The Loves of the Plants. London, J. Johnson, 1789

1792-96. Zoonomia; or, The Laws of Organic Life
     Part I. London, J. Johnson, 1792 (excerpt)
     Part I-III. London, J. Johnson 1796

1797. A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools, Derby, for J. Johnson.

1800. Phytologia; or, The Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening. London, J. Johnson.

1806-1807. The Temple of Nature; or, The Origin of Society. London, J. Johnson.


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Last updated 3 December 2000 (JHW)