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.
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, 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. Although elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1786 (for a paper on “after images” on the retina), Dr Darwin seems to have shown little interest in scientific knowledge for its own sake. He left that to his father and son. Robert was much better at making money. Within five years of settling in Shropshire he was earning almost £1,200 a year.
Behind every great man and his income there is usually a great woman with a dowry. In the case of Robert Darwin this was his wife, Susannah Wedgwood, daughter of the great Staffordshire potter. They wedded in 1796 and enjoyed 21 years of happy marriage before her untimely death. The couple lived first in a town house in The Crescent, before moving to a purpose-built house on The Mount, looking down at the town from across the river. Robert and Susannah had moved up in the world, metaphorically and literally. It was here that Charles Darwin was born and in its landscaped gardens that he began to discover the world of nature.
You might say – though this is hardly encouragement to read to the end – that nothing happened in Robert’s life after this. He did not re-marry after Susannah’s death, devoting his energies instead to raising their six children, caring for his patients and looking after his investments.
By careful management of his income, investing in property, in canals and railways and in government stock, Robert grew his estate to almost £225,000 on his death in 1848.
Nor was it only the doctor’s income that increased. So did his waistline. Already more than 6ft in height, Robert ate as voraciously as his father and stopped weighing himself when he reached 24 stone. A colleague said that meeting Dr Darwin was like seeing a door moving towards one.
And here we must show gratitude for all the good doctor’s hard work. Had it not been for Robert Darwin’s money, then the life of his son and prodigy, Charles, might have turned out very differently indeed. It was not simply that “the governor”, as Charles called him, paid for his son’s wayward education at Edinburgh and Cambridge, which in Charles’s case was more often outside the lecture theatre than in it.
Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking voyage on The Beagle, during which he began to formulate his ideas about natural selection, was itself paid for by his father. The post of naturalist on the ship was not only unpaid, it required a down-payment of £500 and a further £30 a year afterwards.
Our theory of evolution was, you might say, bankrolled by the hard-working doctor from Shrewsbury.