The Darwin Dynasty

4 December 2011

If you were asked to name a famous person with the last name of Darwin, the chances are that you will come up with none other than Charles (left).

Best known for proposing the scientific theory called natural selection, Charles Darwin has had a significant impact on both science and culture.

Yet he wasn’t the only Darwin apple on the tree, as it were.  There are other Darwins in his line who have made significant contributions (including a number of other theories) in their own particular field. 

Yet they do seem to be somewhat overshadowed by their famous relation.  

They are numerous and many direct descendants have interesting stories to tell. Let’s take a look at some of the lesser known Darwins (as well as the man himself).



Erasmus Earle
The Darwins go back a long way.  Although records go back further the first family member to come to the fore was Erasmus Earle (b 1590, d 1667). He was a lawyer and politician who served under Oliver Cromwell as sergeant-at-law.  In other words, he was Cromwell’s barrister and he had the good fortune to survive the restoration of the monarchy and continue his legal career. He became very wealthy and purchased Heydon Hall (above), establishing the county family there.

Erasmus Darwin - 1731-1802
Several generations go by before we see the name Darwin come in to the mix. The first of any fame was Erasmus Darwin, who was the oldest son of Robert Darwin of Elston (1682 - 1754). His first name was traditionally handed down to commemorate the sixteenth century Erasmus Earle. Erasmus’ father had been a lawyer (another notable Darwin family tradition) but Erasmus was a physician.  He famously turned down an invitation to become the physician to the king, George III (yes, the mad one), which was probably a good call.

We can see the roots of the family interest in nature in Erasmus. He was a natural philosopher and physiologist – not to mention an inventor and poet. He also campaigned against the slave trade. His poetry perhaps is most interesting to us. His works contain an (albeit primitive) statement of evolution which maintained that all life is related, upon which subject his grandson would substantially add.

Robert Darwin - 1766 – 1848
Erasmus' son, Robert was a medical doctor by profession and seems to have been a precocious learner. After studying in Edinburgh (a place he loved and where he sent his most famous son) and Leiden in the Netherlands, he started his medical practice just before his twentieth birthday. Within two years he had a thriving practice. He also had a thriving appetite. He eventually stopped weighing himself when he reached 24 stone. In later years, Robert sometimes had to have the floorboards of his patients’ houses tested before he would dare step upon them.

Robert received a small inheritance from his mother and her sister and invested it in housing. The money from the rent was invested in to the burgeoning canal system and he became a major stockholder in both the Trent and Mersey Canal and the London to Holyhead Road. He was, then, something of a representative of the industrial revolution.

Robert’s father, Erasmus had been a close friend of Josiah Wedgwood, the English potter who is credited with the industrialization of the manufacture of pottery.

A marriage was arranged between Robert and Wedgwood’s daughter Susannah (pictured left). Robert and Susannah (who inherited £25,000, an enormous sum at the time) combined their wealth and bought The Mount in Shrewsbury. Their union was a happy one, cut short by Susannah's untimely death from stomach cancer in 1817. Five of their six children were born there, including the second son, born in 1809, who they called Charles.

The Wedgwood connection would have a further impact on the family, one which was to cause that second son much soul searching.

Charles Darwin 1809 – 1882
The most famous scion of the Darwin Dynasty, much has been written about his theory of evolution which was unleashed on the world in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species.

Yet he had had a shaky start. His mother had died when he was only 8 years old and his father sent him to boarding school. Robert’s decision was not, as you might think, a Dickensian washing of the hands of his second son. He had been due to join his elder brother there at some point and it was close to the cherished family home, The Mount.

Later, Robert sent both Charles and Erasmus to Edinburgh to study at the medical school there in order to professionally follow in his footsteps.  Neither of the boys flourished there, particularly Charles who found surgery upsetting.  He found himself spending a deal of time with John Edmonstone (who is on the list of the 100 Great Black Britons) a freed slave, naturalist and explorer from whom he learned taxidermy.

While Erasmus was to be pensioned off by his father at the age of 25, Charles was sent to Cambridge to study to be a parson. He neglected his religious studies for a while and fell in with a group of naturalists including botany professor John Stevens Henslow.  Nevertheless, when the exams came round he came tenth out of 178 candidates; even so, the religious life was not for Charles.

It was Henslow who proposed that Darwin applied for a self-funded place on an expedition to South America on a ship called The Beagle. The rest as they say is history but it almost never happened. Darwin was disappointed when his father refused – telling him that this voyage of discovery was a waste of time. It was only the intervention of his maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, which persuaded his father otherwise. Next time you see a piece of Wedgwood pottery, then, you can ponder on its importance to our understanding of evolution.

On his return from South America Darwin married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood (left). They had ten children together, eight surviving in to adulthood. Darwin was a devoted father and was beside himself when his daughter Annie died at the age of ten.

As there was a close blood relation between him and Emma, Charles worried that this would mean the children would inherit weaknesses due to inbreeding.

However, his children did very well. They included Francis, who went on to become a botanist and Horace, a civil engineer.  They both went on to become Fellows of the Royal Society, as did George – the astronomer.

Sir George Howard Darwin - 1845 –1912
Although George was to become an astronomer and mathematician he was first admitted to the bar in 1872 – a return to a profession which has some history in the family, going back to the sixteenth century. However, he returned to science and became the Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosphy at the University of Cambridge.

His contribution to science was considerable and he was knighted for his efforts. He studied tidal forces involving the sun, earth and moon.  His work on the latter led to something with which his family was historically familiar – a theory. This one was the fission theory of moon formation, which declared that our only satellite was created through fission from the Earth's crust through centrifugal forces.

As was a considerable fashion at the time for the upper echelons of English society, George married an American, Martha du Puy from Philadelphia (left, by the Philadelphia portraitist Cecilia Beaux). 

They had four children.  The oldest, Gwen (Raverat), became a distinguished artist who co-founded the Society of Woodgravers in the UK. The second daughter, Margaret, married Geoffrey Keynes a surgeon and younger brother of the economist John Maynard Keynes.

The younger son, William, became a stockbroker. His son, George Erasmus was a metallurgist.

William's grandchildren include Chris Darwin (b 1961) author of The Ultimate Australian Adventure Guide (who infamously failed his Biology A’ Level) and Sarah (b 1964) a botanist (who passed).

However, we will look towards the elder son, Charles Galton.


Sir Charles Galton Darwin - 1887– 1962
Another Charles, this one was the director of the National Physical Laboratory during the Second World War. It remains to this day an internationally respected centre of excellence in measurement and materials science. Born in Cambridge you could say that this particular Charles Darwin had a lot to live up to – and he did not disappoint. He graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge with a First in Mathematics.

As a postgraduate he gained a position at the University of Manchester. There he worked under Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr on guess what? Another theory – this time Rutherford’s atomic theory.

He moved on to work on X-ray diffraction, publishing two papers in 1914 before he joined the Royal Engineers to help the war effort solving ballistics problems. After the war he lectured at Cambridge before moving to the California Institute of Technology. He returned to the UK in 1924 to become the Tait Professor of Natural Philosophy at his great-grandfather’s beloved seat of learning, the University of Edinburgh.

He became master of Christ’s College Cambridge in 1936.  Another war interrupted his tenure here and he began his work at the NPL. However, he spent most of his time during the war coordinating the American, British and Canadian efforts on the Manhattan Project.

He had met and married mathematician Katherine Pember in 1925. They had five children, four boys and a girl. The only daughter, Cecily, followed her father in to the study of X-rays and became an x-ray crystallographer. She continued the family’s American connection by marrying a Philadelphian, John Littleton in 1951.

The boys did fairly well too, by anyone’s standards. George (1928-2001) helped to develop computers. Francis (1932 – 2001) taught Zoology at the University of London. Edward (b 1934) became a civil engineer.  As for Henry...

Henry Darwin (1929-1992) 
Henry worked at the British Foreign Office as a lawyer and diplomat. Sorry, but we cannot find any pictures of him.

As a legal adviser there Henry Darwin was one of the three men to draft the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between 1963 and 67. He worked at the United Nations for the UK from then until 1970. He was the Director-General Legal Secretariat of the European Communities Brussels 1973-1976 and was a major player at the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea between 1973 and 1982. Although he retired in 1989 he was the leader of a group examining legal issues connected with the former Yugoslavia when he died in 1992.

He married Jane Christie, an English teacher in 1958 and they had three daughters.  The oldest, Sophie, became a mathematician. The youngest, Carola, became an opera singer. The third became a novelist.

Emma Darwin - 1964 - present
There are many Darwin descendants today working successfully in any number of fields. Perhaps the one you are most likely to have heard about (but maybe not made the connection) is Emma Darwin, the great-great granddaughter and namesake of the most famous Darwin’s wife. Emma Darwin writes historical fiction and has had two novels published.

The first, the Mathematics of Love was published in 2006, combines the letters and memoirs of a veteran of the Napoleonic wars with the first-person narrative of a teenager who moves into the soldier’s former home in the mid-1970s.

Her second novel, A Secret Alchemy, tells the story of the mother of the Princes in the Tower, Elizabeth Woodville, and her brother, Earl Rivers, the guardian to the elder boy. The late-medieval plot is interwoven with the modern family saga of an academic, Una Pryor, who is researching Elizabeth's and Anthony's books.

Emma Darwin’s website elaborates on her writing, as well as her teaching. As the first ever person to gain a doctorate from Goldsmiths College, University of London, in Creative Writing, she now lectures on the importance of good writing to historians and on evolution in the process of writing novels. She lives in South East London with her children.

Image Credits
Charles Darwin in Introduction,, Heydon Hall, Erasmus Darwin , Robert Darwin , Charles Darwin, old, Charles Darwin, young man, Emma Darwin , Sir George Darwin , Sir Charles Galton Darwin , Foreign Office , Emma Darwin


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