Doctor of the Week: Erasmus Darwin

To millions of Americans today, the name of Darwin is taboo, associated with disbelief in the Word of God and its teaching of Creation. Oddly enough, this was the case in England even before Charles Darwin had been born. When, in the wake of the French Revolution, political and religious reaction swept through England, Darwin senior’s huge epic poem The Temple of Nature was condemned for its notions of the gradual development of life without the interference of a deity, though Darwin concealed this by his borrowing of religious language:
Shout round the globe, how reproduction strives
With vanquished Death – and Happiness survives;
How Life increasing peoples every clime,
And young renascent Nature conquers Time.

Unlike his grandson Charles, Erasmus was very much the Dawkinsian optimist, rejoicing in the beauty and variety of Nature and turning a blind eye to its universal arbitrary cruelty.

Darwin the elder was a larger-than-life figure in every sense, and from the narrative of his life which is threaded through Jenny Uglow’s wonderful book The Lunar Men it is clear that the energy in his huge frame sometimes bordered on the manic. Had he lived in our time, he would have been struck off the Medical Register several times – for having affairs with his patients, for plagiarising Withering’s work on digitalis, for making opium addicts of several patients (even perhaps indirectly creating the habit in Coleridge), and for his wild and dangerous use of any and every drug available to him – rhubarb, mercury, foxglove and dephlogisticated air (oxygen). But then doctors were not prized for their therapies, which were known to be useless or dangerous, but for their empathy and prognostic ability:
“A mysterious gentleman arrived from London, to consult him as ‘the greatest physician in the world, to hear from you if there is any hope in my case’. Darwin examined him and declared the issue hopeless, then asked him why, if he came from London, had he not seen the famous Richard Warren, the senior royal physician? ‘Alas! doctor,’ came the reply, ’I am Dr Warren.’ “

Darwin managed to combine highly successful medical practice with tireless scientific and mechanical ingenuity and inquisitiveness. He was at the centre of the great scientific and technological advances of his age, a close friend of Boulton, Priestley, Wedgwood and Watt. But I think what the modern doctor must envy him most was his mode of conveyance:
“on the way to see patients, he wrote in his carriage, the front of which ‘was occupied by a receptacle for writing paper and pencils, likewise for a knife, fork and spoon; on one side was a pile of books reaching from the floor nearly to the front window… on the other, a hamper containing fruit and sweetmeats, cream and sugar’.”