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Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unequalled Achievement

Biography / Memoir

By: Desmond King-Hele (Author)

422 pages, B/w plates

Giles de la Mare

Paperback | Dec 1999 | #103187 | ISBN: 1900357089
Availability: Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks Details
NHBS Price: £34.50 $42/€39 approx

About this book

Fine biography of Charles Darwin's grandfather and his extraordinary achievements in physics, chemistry, geology, meteorology and all aspects of biology.

W.F. Bynum in Nature: 'To most people who have heard of him, Erasmus Darwin was a successful doctor, bad poet and, most significantly, the grandfather of Charles Darwin. In this astonishing book, Desmond King-Hele seeks to reverse the judgement and argue that Charles should rather be remembered as Erasmus's grandson...[that] Erasmus was much the brighter spark, a genius of rare qualities...Few scientific lives have ever been so carefully and thoughtfully examined. There are no final words in history, but this is a biography for which the word definitive can be aptly applied.' Patricia Fara in Times Higher Educational Supplement: 'Instead of being dismissed as the whimsical creator of 'a bizarre tale of gaudily dressed characters engrossed in various forms of polygamy', [he] is now recognized as an influential author and an important man of science who made vital contributions to the early stages of English industrialization...A moving and amply researched narrative of a man who for [the author] has acquired a heroic stature...' Choice: '...King-Hele's splendid biography of Charles Darwin's grandfather...' Brian J. Ford in Notes and Records of the Royal Society: '...a book that is required reading for any historian of science, and which should be digested by present-day researchers if they wish to keep a hold on reality. It tells the tale of a full and productive life, rich in learning and good works, filled with experiences and overflowing with insights and wide-ranging innovation...[It is] set to become the standard work on a pioneering scientist about whom we all need to know more...As the polymath doctor reminds us, and as this book fittingly testifies, it is the individual enthusiast who embraces science to the fullest extent and helps create the future. It is when disciplines meld into a great overview of science that we see the greatest conceptual steps. Erasmus Darwin was a fine example and [the author], who has transgressed boundaries of his own to bring us this enthralling story, reminds us of the salient fact that great minds are not inhibited by disciplinary constraints. Rather, they are stimulated by overcoming them. There are lessons in this admirable book for the most futuristic young bioscientist, and timely instruction for the most recalcitrant of conformists.' Library Journal: '...what may be the definitive biography...[it] will appeal to both scholars and general readers. Highly recommended.' Roy Porter in Literary Review: '...for the past forty years, this distinguished physicist has devoted his spare time to rediscovering and rehabilitating one of the greatest intellectual all-rounders this country has ever produced...Is he truly a neglected genius? Does he live up to Coleridge's judgement of 1796: 'I think he is the first literary character in Europe, and the most original-minded man'? The short answer is yes...The non-stop bustling life of this giant is recounted here in a racy, chatty, relaxed style, just right for the subject. All praise to Desmond King-Hele for resurrecting one of the most appealing Englishmen.' The Scotsman, Book Reviews: 'Charles Darwin's grandfather was just as brilliant a scientist, but he was also an inventor of genius, an outstanding poet and an acclaimed doctor. [This] biography does full justice to a man who emerges as one of the founding fathers of the modern age...On any definition, this is an amazing life...' '...highly readable, terrific on the scientific background to the Industrial Revolution and guaranteed to make even the most hyperactive over-achiever feel inadequate.' Publishers Weekly: '...This engaging, totally unstuffy biography of the prolific inventor, physician, poet and naturalist brings him out from the shadow of his more famous grandson, Charles Darwin, and should force a reappraisal of his place in history...This brilliant biography plunges us deep into the scientific, medical and industrial revolutions and the birth of the modern age.' Scotland on Sunday: 'A deist, a stutterer and conversationalist of such accomplishment that even Coleridge was impressed, Erasmus Darwin also came up with a theory of evolution some 70 years before his grandson Charles turned his mind to it...[His] other inventions, discoveries and contributions to the history of science are so numerous that a list of them comprises a 19-line footnote at the end...Artesian wells, copying machines, photosynthesis, electrotherapy? Rocket motors, submarines, telescopes, water as H2O? King-Hele admits to being astounded by the range, inventiveness and productivity of the Darwinian brain.'


Unbringing, 1731-1756; a young doctor of Lichfield, 1756-1760; prospering, 1761-1764; creating the lunar circle, 1765-1768; a great change, 1768-1771; interregnum, 1772-1774; fresh starts, 1775-1777; deaths, devices and desires, 1778-1780; newly wed at Radburn, 1781-1783; settled at Derby, 1784-1787; Renaissance, 1788-1790; eminence, 1791-1793; leading man of medicine, 1794-1796; confronting adversity, 1797-1799; downhill, 1800-1802; a pageant of life, 1803-1832; legacies, 1833-1998. Darwin family tree. appendices: Erasmus Darwin's writings; selected books and papers; acknowledgements.

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Desmond King-Hele, who is the leading authority on Erasmus Darwin having studied his life and work for three decades, is a mathematician and physicist who is an expert on space research by satellite and in particular on the Earth's gravity field and the upper atmosphere, and worked for many years at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society. He has written fifteen books including a standard critical work on Shelley, Shelley: His Thought and Work, and Erasmus Darwin and the Romantic Poets; and he has edited the Letters of Erasmus Darwin. His earlier life of Erasmus Darwin, Doctor of Revolution, will be superseded by this completely new book. He is also a poet.

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