The Man of Science and the Man of Letters

I have just spent a few days in Lichfield, which you might not think of as a key cultural centre, but it happens to be closely associated with two giants, in the form of Erasmus Darwin and Samuel Johnson, both doctors, though of very different kinds. Looking round the museums representing their respective houses – for Darwin, the one where he lived and practiced medicine for 23 years from 1758-81; for Johnson the one where he was born and brought up approximately half a century earlier – it is interesting to put their lives into some sort of juxtaposition.

Regular readers of this blog will know that Erasmus Darwin is one of my heroes about whom I have written before.  Charles Darwin’s grandfather, he seems to have had inklings about evolution, which he expressed through the unlikely medium of rhyming couplets in his poem Zoonomia and also (albeit briefly, because it offended the clerics from the Cathedral onto which his house backed) through his Latin motto ‘e conchis omnia’.Literally this means ‘everything from shells’ and it was emblazoned on his coach. During the time he lived in Lichfield time he encountered Samuel Johnson a few times; between them there was clearly mutual dislike if not loathing.  The evidence for this comes from the families of one of those very same cathedral clerics, Canon Seward, whose daughter Anna wrote an early biography of Darwin. More of this below.

Samuel Johnson was born the son of a rather disorganised bookseller in Lichfield.  He is famous for his dictionary and for his wit, which he seems to have made essentially his profession in the way that Georgian society permitted. His background being probably best described as ‘trade’ (as opposed to ‘gentleman’), he did manage to get to Oxford for 13 months of education, before having to leave – without a degree –  due to shortage of funds. For this reason the eventual award of an Oxford honorary degree (hence his title of doctor) was probably all the sweeter. But, from what I can gauge, he probably always had a chip on his shoulder about his pedigree and was anxious to get all the recognition he could. I have read his ‘A journey to the Western Islands of Scotland’, and very pompous and self-satisfied I found it, however ‘witty’ and informative it may be about the people he met en route. Full of self-aggrandisement, it is a testament to how anxious Johnson must always have felt about his standing in a society which believed in Society. He could not take things for granted and needed to feel in the thick of things. He used to visit Lichfield from time to time, and appears to have had high regard for the city and its citizens, referring to them as

‘the most sober, decent people in England, the genteelest in proportion to their wealth and spoke the purest English’.

Johnson’s craving for cosmopolitan fame and success is in utter contrast to Darwin, who more than once turned down the opportunity to become the Royal Physician in London. Darwin, one feels, was more comfortable in his own skin than Johnson (who has been posthumously diagnosed as suffering from Tourette’s apparently, which can’t have helped), more confident in his own merits, and more inclined to follow his interests where they would rather than because it would earn him plenty of money. Hence, an original inventor of many things (a speaking machine, an early pantograph, the basic idea underpinning modern axles and a horizontal windmill to name but a few) he never took out a single patent. His profession was medicine and he clearly feared that by revealing himself to be either an inventor or a poet he could damage that professional standing on which his income – which he most certainly did need for a very large family of children, both legitimate and illegitimate – depended. Yet he equally certainly was both, and for a while (once he had ‘outed’ himself as a poet) was regarded as the foremost poet of his age. He would appear to epitomise a Renaissance, or more accurately an Enlightenment Man. He was a Whig, who admired the spirit of the French Revolution and whose close circle within the Lunar Society included many of the leading scientists (Priestley and Watt) and innovators/manufacturers (Boulton and Wedgwood) of the day.

The Seward family had interactions with both Darwin and Johnson. Canon Seward, a prebendary at the cathedral, was very influential in setting Darwin’s medical practice on a firm footing when he first arrived in the city, although subsequently Darwin fell out with him on various counts. Seward’s daughter Anna was a close friend, who sought advice from Darwin on her poetry; indeed Darwin encouraged her rather against the wishes of her father (who clearly felt this was not a seemly activity for a young woman), but Darwin had strong and advanced views on female education summed up in his 1797 book A plan for the conduct of female education in boarding schools. However, ultimately he may have left Anna feeling let down, by not asking her to be his second wife.  The Seward’s clearly knew Johnson and used to entertain him during his Lichfield visits, although Johnson was hardly complimentary about the Canon:

‘Sir, he has ambition to be a fine talker; so goes to Buxton, and such places, where he may find company to listen to him…’.

Canon Seward had literary pretensions himself, having produced a new edition of Beaumont’s plays. When Johnson produced an edition of Shakespeare, Darwin pilloried them both in verse:

From Lichfield famed two giant critics come,
Tremble, ye Poets! Hear them! ‘Fe, fo fum!’
By Seward’s arm the mangled Beaumont bled,
And Johnson grinds poor Shakespeare’s bones for bread.

That being so, perhaps it is no surprise they did not get on when they subsequently met a couple of years later. Johnson was the older by some 22 years, and must have regarded himself at this point in his life as the son of Lichfield made good (although his friend and erstwhile pupil David Garrick could also have claimed to fit that particular niche).  He did not like returning to the town to find a local star, a polymath who had a growing national reputation and who could not be talked down. Anna Seward wrote in her biography:

‘Mutual and strong dislike subsisted between them’


‘Johnson liked only worshippers’….

Darwin and the Seward’s were not of those who

‘sunk, in servile silence, under the force of his dogmas’.

Clearly there was a strong clash of personalities between two larger-than-life characters, neither of whom wished to give ground to the other, and who probably differed in their approaches to just about everything. Although I found my visit to Johnson’s house the more interesting, maybe because I knew less about him in advance but also because the Erasmus Darwin house is largely aimed at children, my sympathies lie much more with the enlightened free-spirit of Darwin, keen on female education and with a general curiosity about everything, than the high Tory Johnson wishing to be liked and plauded wherever he went.


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2 Responses to The Man of Science and the Man of Letters

  1. Recently I was at the Wellcome Library for their “The thing is” series and the exhibit was a touch piece issued during the reign of Queen Anne. These were used as a cure for a form of TB known as scrofula (the King’s Evil). Samuel Johnson was taken at the age of two by his parents from Lichfield to get his touch piece from Queen Anne. He was apparently cured of scrofula, having been diagnosed as having the disease. Apparently he wore the touch piece round his neck until he died. This touch piece is on show in the British Museum. The Wellcome kindly allowed me to have images of a Queen Anne touch piece and one of King Henry VII for my blogpost on the subject.

    It’s interesting to note that you mentioned David Garrick, as currently on show in London are the paintings by Johan Zoffany and these include several of David Garrick and society at the time. Zoffany also painted members of the Royal Academy being lectured on the subject of anatomy by Professor William Hunter. It may also be the case that the Royal Societies had more fluidity in their membership than they do now.

    In discussing Dr Johnson, it’s often difficult to separate the stories of Johnson from those of James Boswell. I enjoyed your comments about Erasmus Darwin as it sheds more light on the scientific society and society in general. One tends to forget that while James Watt was a scientist, he was nevertheless an inventor too who made a lot of money out of his discoveries. While in the 18th century we may have regarded scientists as gentlemen scientists, I’m not sure the distinction holds today.

    • Profwhitestick
      Thanks. If you’re interested in Erasmus Darwin, do read my earlier post and the book by Desmond King Hele. He was an intriguing character, all the more so for not being a ‘character’ professionally as it were, unlike Johnson.

      The transition from gentlemen-who-did-a-bit-of-science-on-the-side to scientists seems to have been quite a difficult change for some. I have just been reading All Scientists Now by Marie Boas Hall discussing this transition as it manifested itself within the Royal Society. Clearly moving on from a royal/aristocratic President, for instance, caused much angst. It’s not particularly a book I’d recommend though; it’s good on facts but written very drily and I suspect there are other better ones on this period out there.