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Physician, poet, polymath and prophet: erasmus darwin a new window eighteenth-century child health care
  1. A N Williams
  1. Virtual Academic Unit, CDC, Northampton General Hospital, Northampton, UK

Abstract

Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802) is omitted from Still's History of Paediatrics. He was the foremost physician of his time, and a highly regarded poet. As a founder member of the Lunar Society, he included Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt, James Brindley and Joseph Priestly among his closest friends.

Darwin's descriptions of placental respiration has already been recognised1 but it is clear that his wide and celebrated medical practice, and writings invite a wider view to be taken of his work.

This paper will examine Darwin's child healthcare writings taken from Zoonomia (1794) (written based upon his extensive clinical experience), his extensive correspondence and his commonplace book (kept at his home – now a museum at Lichfield).

This paper will explore Darwin's thoughts in those areas now considered within the terms of paediatrics and child healthcare. This includes descriptions on child development, infanticide, his strong advocacy for female education A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools (1797), human rights (his antislavery writings), orthopaedics, and inoculation.

Darwin was a firm advocate of inoculation, actively advocated for it and sponsored a local study on measles. He wrote to Edward Jenner, accurately predicting the future eradication of smallpox and the introduction of widespread neonatal immunisation programmes. ‘that in a little time it may occur that the christening and the vaccination of children may always be performed on the same day’.2

Darwin's Temple of Nature (posthumously published 1803) with its description of evolution, was 50 years later developed by his grandson, Charles. In his breadth of interests and achievements Erasmus Darwin has been justly labelled the ‘English Leonardo’. In the way he conducted his life, he remains an undying inspiration.

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