The Erasmus Darwin Museum, Lichfield, Staffordshire: home of an exceptionally talented “lunatic”

Front of house

Erasmus Darwin (1731 – 1802) grandfather of Charles Darwin the naturalist, was a medical doctor, an inventor, a philosopher, a botanist and the leading poet of the time. He married twice, had 13 children, 2 of whom were illegitimate daughters with the household’s nursemaid. Being a forward thinking gentleman he made sure his daughters were just as fully educated as their brothers, even going as far as to establish a boarding school for girls. 

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Being ahead of his time, Erasmus understood the mind/body medical connection. He treated his patients very kindly, especially those with mental illness and did not always charge a fee for his work in general.

He had a horse named Doctor who he used to attach to a carriage and use for getting to patients’ houses. If the journey became difficult he would unhook the carriage and continue on horse back in his quest to quickly help the sick. Eventually master and horse would be buried in the same Derbyshire graveyard.

At home Erasmus used this former baker’s slab to dissect corpses. He was legally allowed to cut up bodies of executed criminals, all in the name of research you understand.

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The kitchen.

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When Mary Shelley heard about Erasmus’s experiments in galvanism, the contraction of a muscle stimulated by an electric current, she was inspired to write “Frankenstein”, published in 1831.

Erasmus’s most famous invention was the steering mechanism which was used in cars until the 1940s, however he also created a copying machine, a weighing machine, a flushing toilet, a speaking machine, a vertical axis windmill and a canal lift. None of his ideas were ever patented as he did not want to undermine his main career as a physician and so he got his friends to patent modifications of his designs.

Erasmus’s note book, known as a Common Place book, 1779.

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Despite his life being rather full, Erasmus still found time to start up and run The Lunar Society, a secret gathering for amateur inventors who met on Monday evenings closest to the full moon. This timing was allegedly for the group to clearly see their way home in the dark rather than anything mystical. But all the same time, we will never know for sure since no meeting minutes were ever taken.

The Lunar Society is still going today in Birmingham on a much larger scale however, back in the beginning the only members were these bright Midlands boys: James Watt (harnessed the power of steam), Matthew Boulton (engineer), Joseph Priestley (polymath) and Josiah Wedgwood (social reformer). All attendees enhanced the industrial revolution and Erasmus nicknamed his clan “The Lunatics”.

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Hand-cut sandstone of the Darwin home.

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The herb garden (the plant is a House Leek).

Around the property.

The family home back in the day with a nice bridge out front.

Ancient sketch of house bridge

A young Erasmus Darwin cuddling Shakespeare.

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“Retirement is a dangerous experiment and generally ends up in either drunkenness or hypochondria”. Erasmus Darwin.

 

 

 

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