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Robert Waring DARWIN
Robert Waring DARWIN born was born on the 30th May 1766 in Lichfield, Staffordshire. He was one of five children, the son of Erasmus DARWIN and his first wife Mary (Polly) HOWARD. He was named after his uncle, Robert Waring DARWIN of Elstone.
From birth, he lived in his parents’ house (Darwin House) in Beacon Street, Lichfield. A large house on the West Gate entrance to The Close. His father Erasmus was responsible for the enlargement of the original house and its noble Palladian frontage. His family coat of arms consisted of three scallop shells, and the motto E conchis omnia, or ‘everything from shells’.
His mother Mary (Polly) died in 1770 aged 30, a victim of illness, drink and opium. He continued to live in the same house with his father and aunt Susanna, as housekeeper. Not too long after his mother’s death, his father hired a governess Mary PARKER, to look after him. He was only 3 at the time.
By late 1771, his father and Mary had become intimately involved and together they had two illegitimate daughters, his half-sisters, Susanna PARKER (1772 - 1856) and Mary PARKER Jnr (1774 - 1859).
In 1781 aged when aged 5, his father Erasmus married Elizabeth POLE, daughter of Charles COLVEAR, 2nd Earl of Portmore, and widow of Colonel Edward POLE (1718 - 1780). His father moved into her home, her home, Radbourne Hall, four miles (6 km) west of Derby. He and his brothers and sisters, legitimate and illegitimate, moved too. His step-mother already had three sons from her
previous marriage. The hall and village are these days known as Radbourne.
In 1783 aged 17, like his father, Robert began his studies of medicine at the University of Edinburgh. His father then sent him to the Leiden University in the Netherlands for a few months, and he took his MD there on the 26th February 1785. His Leyden dissertation was impressive and was published in the Philosophical Transactions, but his father may have assisted him in this. In Edinburgh, Robert had studied under several leading scholars, including John WALKER.
After his education, his father took him to Shrewsbury, Shropshire, where he lived on St. John's Hill. His father had given him £20 saying "Let me know when you want more, and I will send it you". He was sent another £20 by his uncle, and that was all he needed to set up his own medical practice.
A tall slim young man, he gained attention when the wife of a bookseller in Wellington, who was being treated for illness by a doctor from the county hospital, fell dangerously ill while that doctor was away for several days on business. Robert was called in, and as the apothecary would give no information, had to decide on treatment himself. She died, and there was a controversy about which doctor was to blame. Robert hastily published a pamphlet showing that the other doctor had been treating her for a disease which she did not have, and while his reputation was gained, the other doctor moved elsewhere.
After only six months, Robert had between forty and fifty patients and, within two years had a large practice, and he moved to The Crescent.
On the 21st February 1788, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
With small inheritance that his mother had left him and another from an aunt, Robert invested the money in housing. He bought the freehold of several buildings in Shrewsbury and rented them out. He bought stocks in the Trent and Mersey Canal and became a major stockholder. He also invested in the London to Holyhead Road, which was built by Thomas TELFORD.
His father Erasmus had reached an understanding with his close friend and pottery manufacturer Josiah WEDGWOOD that Robert would marry WEDGWIOOD’s favourite daughter Susannah when he was able to support her. Josiah died in January 1795, leaving £25,000 to Susannah.
By this time, Robert was well established, and he married Susannah on the 18th April 1796, at St. Marylebone, Middlesex. Susannah moved in with him in The Crescent. Their first child, Marianne (1798 -1858), was born there. In 1824 Marianne married Henry PARKER (1788 – 1858).
Robert purchased land overlooking the River Severn and had a large red-brick house built there around 1800 which was named The Mount, Shrewsbury. On completion, he moved there with his wife and daughter. The house stood in a large garden. He took pleasure in it, and had it planted out with ornamental trees, shrubs and fruit trees. There, Robert and Susannah had five more children, Caroline Sarah (1800–1888), Susan Elizabeth (1803–1866), Erasmus Alvey (1804–1881), the naturalist Charles DARWIN, and Emily Catherine (1810–1866).
He held his experience in Edinburgh in such high regard that he sent his son Charles to study there. He at first refused to let his son join the survey voyage of HMS Beagle, but was persuaded otherwise.
Robert provided the first empirical evidence that small eye movements are made even when people attempt to keep them fixed. This he found during his studies of the afterimages of colored stimuli in which he noticed that while a person tried to fixate a colored circle, a lucid edge appeared on the adjacent white-paper background. He concluded "as by the unsteadiness of the eye a part of the fatigued retina falls on the white paper".
Painting of Robert DARWIN by James C. PARDON. Oil on canvas measuring 400 x 265mm.
It hangs in the Shrewsbury Museum.
Robert died in 1848 aged 85.
On the 5th February 1952, his childhood home Darwin House became a Grade I listed building.
On the 5th April 1999, Darwin House became a museum and visitor centre dedicated to the life work of his father,
and it is called Erasmus Darwin House.
If you have any information to add on Robert Waring DARWIN, please send details to us at enquiries@bfhg.org.uk