The 112 Erasmus Darwins of Massachusetts

While I was doing research in Ashfield a few years ago, I transcribed the Vital Records of the town onto 3x5 note-cards. Yeah, all of the names. I still have the stack of cards, and I can compress it to about four inches if I lean on it hard. It struck me as odd, as I was writing them all down, how many people had been given the name Darwin, especially since published Vital Records birth records end at 1849. In all, six Ashfield children were named “Darwin” or “Erasmus Darwin” between 1803 and 1847. Erasmus Darwin was Charles Darwin’s grandfather. He lived from 1730-1802 and was a prominent physician, poet, inventor, friend of Benjamin Franklin, and proponent of evolution by natural selection.

That’s right. Erasmus Darwin published idea that all life on earth was descended from a single microscopic ancestor in 1770. In 1796, Darwin published the first volume of his
Zoonomia, which was heralded as the Principia of the medical profession, and which discusses his ideas on evolution. And in 1803, the posthumous publication of Darwin’s poem The Temple of Nature elaborated his position even more explicitly. Erasmus Darwin wasn't just some country doctor with an idea, though. He founded Birmingham’s Lunar Society, translated Linnaeus, and was a member of the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, and the American Philosophical Society. When his grandson Charles published On the Origin of Species, the younger Darwin's critics thought they’d be able to silence him by quoting verbatim from tracts written against his grandfather’s theories.

Erasmus Darwin never visited America, although he was a political radical and a supporter of American independence and critic of the Pitt government’s repressions in the 1790s. So I was surprised to discover he was so well-known in a remote western-Massachusetts hill-town like Ashfield. But maybe Ashfield was unusual, I thought. Looking a little farther, I uncovered sixty-three other towns in Massachusetts where children were apparently named for Erasmus Darwin before 1849! I also found 96 towns where there is no record of a child named “Erasmus” or “Darwin” in the
Vital Records. These two groups represent all the towns whose records I was able to find online, so it might be fair to suspect the ratio would be similar for the other towns. But even if there were no more Darwins, sixty-three towns!

It’s possible, of course, that a few of the children named “Erasmus” may have been named for the fifteenth-century humanist, or for remote family members (close ones would have shown up in the records I was searching). But I think most of them were named for the scientist, especially because in most cases they’re actually named “Erasmus Darwin.”  Also, I found no record of “Darwin” being a common family name in these Massachusetts towns, and Charles Darwin’s only significant publication before 1849 was his
The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, published in 5 parts, 1838-1843. So I think it's a pretty good bet that these children born in the early nineteenth century a continent away were named for the British scientist.

In all, I found
112 children named “Erasmus,” “Erasmus Darwin,” “Darwin,” or, in a couple of cases, “Erastus Darwin.”  But this initial search of Vital Record books available online missed 187 towns, whose records are not yet available electronically.  So the odds are high that there are many more Erasmus Darwins I never discovered! As bizarre as the mere fact of all these young Darwins in early nineteenth-century Massachusetts towns, is where the towns were (here's the Environmental/Cultural History angle). If people were going to be naming their children after a British scientist (obscure or famous), you’d expect them to live in cities, close to institutions of higher learning like Harvard, wouldn’t you?  Well, you’d be dead wrong.

Most of the people who named their children after the scientist lived in central or western Massachusetts. I found most of the birth records in Worcester, Hampshire, and Franklin Counties. Though they weren’t completely absent from the Boston area, there were more towns close to the coast without a Darwin than with one. The towns marked in green on the map below had at least one “Darwin.” Several had more than one. Two towns, Ashfield and Leominster, had six. The browns had none.

I began looking into the histories of these towns, to see who these “Darwins” were. And, perhaps more important, who their parents were. In looking at the first dozen or so, it seemed that some of them were educated people, ministers or physicians, as you'd expect. But many others were farmers, shoemakers, and tavern-keepers. The whole surprising episode suggests that people in some of the remotest parts of Massachusetts were thinking about issues and reading books I would never have expected, reading the standard historiography of Early America. And it's a completely different picture of the intellectual life of regular people in the early 19th century than you get in popular American History!

I considered trying to write little sketches of the lives of of these "Darwin" people, because I thought they might turn up interesting insights. Then I got busy pursuing the much more mainstream topics that became my fields and dissertation proposal. It's a shame. Maybe I'll return to this mystery someday. I think there are still surprises lurking in this material…

Before Origin of Species, Vestiges


Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation appeared anonymously in 1844.  Its author was Robert Chambers, a publisher and philanthropist of Edinburgh.  Vestiges, “alarmingly popular despite a merciless critical pounding, was regarded by the orthodox as pernicious in the very highest degree.”

This quote comes from the Introduction of Milton Millhauser’s Just Before Darwin (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1959).  The other book I’ve found (which I ran across accidentally, because it mentions Charles Bradlaugh) is James A. Secord’s Victorian Sensation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).  I read these because I was developing an impression, after discovering the Erasmus Darwins of Massachusetts, that ideas of biological evolution were popular among regular people for several decades before Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species.  It almost seems that Charles Darwin was merely the figure who forced the scientific establishment (represented by the Royal Society) to consider a topic they’d been studiously avoiding or even repressing ever since Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus published his Zoonomia in 1796!

Millhauser says part of the problem with
Vestiges is that it was in plain English and it was inexpensive.  This made it available and affordable for the masses.  “Once again,” Millhauser says (when he says again is he referring to Erasmus Darwin?), “the public was informed, by a glib pseudo scientist without even Lamarck’s pretensions to authority, that the true Adam of the human race was a baboon” (5).  This sums up the issue nicely: it has to do with public, rather than scientific, understanding of humanity’s origins.  It has to do with the control of scientific information by an elite cadre of authorities, naturally drawn from the upper classes and educated at the best “public” schools.  And it has to do with the inevitable demise of a biblical creation story that few educated Englishmen actually took seriously, but that nearly all believed should be upheld (like Plato’s Noble Lie) for the common people, especially in lieu of an alternative story that maintained the authority of a state-sponsored institution like the established church.

Millhauser dismisses Erasmus Darwin and Charles Lyell in an endnote, saying “they each devote to evolution only a small portion of a work dealing with some other major theme” (191 n. 4).  This is true, and
Vestiges deserves recognition as the first complete book on the subject to achieve wide readership.  But it ignores the relationships between the ideas of Darwin and Lyell and those of Chambers.  Making his case for a serious study of Chambers, Millhauser identifies the issue of synthesis, and especially of synthesis by amateurs.  He says “An early Victorian layman might still feel…that he had perceived a truth that the professionals had somehow managed to ignore or even to hush up, and that this might provide the principle of unification, the frank definition of the central tendency of science, for which the world was waiting” (8).  This is an idea that has particular resonance for me at this point, not least in the political implications such a changed understanding of the world might have on regular people in the early 19th century.