The Darwin History Forgot; Son of Erasmus and Father of Charles, Robert Darwin Hardly Left a Mark. but He Did Fund His Son's Beagle Voyage. Chris Upton Tells His Story

Article excerpt

I've always felt posthumously sorry for Erasmus Darwin. One of the greatest minds of his age, and a leading light of the Lunar Society, for two centuries he has had this light eclipsed under the bushel of his even more famous grandson, Charles Darwin. Find me any biography that does not begin by calling him "the grandfather of Charles".

But if posterity has been unkind to Erasmus, then pity even more the fate of Robert Darwin, the son of Erasmus and the father of Charles. It is not easy to find oneself on the sofa of history, squeezed between two men of genius. The Dictionary of National Biography only rubs salt into the wounds. Erasmus and Charles Darwin are there, along with three of Charles' sons, but poor old Robert does not get a look in.

Yet Robert Darwin was more than simply the bearer of the Darwin genes, and a more than interesting character in his own right. The town of Shrewsbury for one would be considerably poorer without him. Andrew Pattison's excellent recent book, The Darwins of Shrewsbury (History Press, y 2009) helps to set the record straight.

Robert was born in 1766, the third son of Erasmus Darwin, and he became part of a very complicated family tree indeed. Erasmus had three children before the death of his first wife, Polly, who passed away when Robert was only four years old.

Erasmus then had two more children by his mistress, before marrying for a second time to Elizabeth Pole, a widow with three offspring of her own. Erasmus and Elizabeth then had a further seven children.

Not surprisingly, then, and despite his great reputation as a general practitioner in Lichfield, Erasmus Darwin's finances became extremely stretched. Perhaps Robert Darwin learnt a lesson from this.

Like his father, Robert Darwin trained as a doctor.

His training took him first to London, to study under the great John Hunter, then to Edinburgh Medical School - the finest in the country - and lastly to the University of Leiden, where he finally qualified as an MD in 1785. Then it was a matter of finding a practice to put all that education to practical use.

Robert's choice fell upon Shrewsbury. His father had friends there- including Lord Clive - and one of the town's doctors had recently died, allowing a new practitioner to get his foot in the door. The work of an 18th-century GP was a lucrative, but also an arduous one. A practice was built up by reputation and word of mouth, and was by no means limited to the town and its environs. The journeys to see patients in their own homes took up far more time than the treatment.

Robert Darwin divided his time between his duties as physician to the Salop Infirmary, surgeries every morning at home and travel to his clients. Within six months he had built up a base of 50 patients.

Robert Darwin's enthusiasm for medical practice goes some way to explaining why he fails to make the DNB. …