Doctor Erasmus Darwin on ‘Cannabis’ (2020)

by Federico Soldani – 20th Dec 2020

Doctor Erasmus Darwin (1731 – 1802) was an English physician and a friend of Benjamin Franklin, the American revolutionary and signer of the Declaration of Independence.

A strong supporter of the American and French Revolutions, Darwin congratulated Franklin in a letter dated 29 May 1787: “Whilst I am writing to a Philosopher and a Friend, I can scarcely forget that I am also writing to the greatest Statesman of the present, or perhaps of any century, who spread the happy contagion of Liberty among his countrymen.”

According to biographer Desmond King-Hele, after the events of the American Revolution started in 1773, “the Lunar circle’s father-figure, Benjamin Franklin was still in England in 1774, acting virtually as American ambassador: King George III [who came to be known in history for his madness, ed.] was to call him the evil genius behind the Revolution, and Lord North branded him as ‘the great fomenter of the opposition in America.’

Darwin usually suppressed his own political opinions to avoid offending patients, but now he came out strongly in favor of Franklin and the American colonists. From this time onwards he can safely be labelled a radical in politics” (‘Doctor of Revolution’ 1977).

Together, Franklin and Darwin started meetings from which grew ‘the Lunar Group’ – also known as the Lunar Society of Birmingham – which included early industrialists, industrial revolution pioneers, and natural philosophers, such as James Watt, the man who perfected the steam engine critical for the Industrial Revolution. They used to call themselves ‘Lunaticks’ (see D. G. King-Hele “Erasmus Darwin, Man of Ideas and Inventor of Words’ 1988).

Erasmus Darwin, among other inventions, designed around 1771 a speaking-machine called ‘the organ’, apparently able to speak simple words such as ‘mama’ and ‘papa’, based on a theory of phonetics developed in consultation with Benjamin Franklin. He feared for his medical practice if he was known to be a ‘mad inventor’: “I do not court this kind of Reputation, as I believe it might injure me”, Darwin wrote.


Erasmus has been considered a “wordsmith” for “a rare ability to coin words that have entered the English language”; among innumerable words later used and still in use today, he contributed coining Cannabis official botanical name and his own is considered the first recorded use of the word Cannabis in English (1791).

Known nowadays mainly as the grandfather of Charles Darwin, Erasmus wrote verses in poetry to the Cannabis plant since the first edition of ‘The Loves of the Plants’ (1789, for which Henry Fuseli provided the frontispiece, poem later included as part of his long poem ‘The Botanic Garden’, 1791, for which William Blake provided some of the engravings) in which Darwin humanized plants in terms of sexual analogies.

In April 1789, ‘The Loves of the Plants’ was issued by the radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Darwin worked on a second and a third edition, where he included new verses on Cannabis.

The first plant in Darwin’s list, both in his poem and in his study ‘A system of Vegetables’, is Canna. In the poem, the Canna plants were ‘one male and one female’ (emphasis in the original):

“First the tall CANNA lifts his curled brow

Erect to Heaven, and plights his nuptial vow.”


Slow treads fair CANNABIS the breezy strand,

The distaff streams dishevell’d in her hand;

Now to the left her ivory neck inclines,

And leads in Pophian curves its azure lines… “

In a footnote, Darwin wrote that “Chinese Hemp… is believed to be much superior to the hemp of other countries” and – he noted with awe – in a letter to the celebrated naturalist and botanist Sir Joseph Banks, it was reported that such plant grown in England shot from seed to 14 feet in five months:

“A new species of hemp of which an account is given by K. Fitzgerald Esq in a letter to Sir Joseph Banks and which is believed to be much superior to the hemp of other countries.” – Darwin wrote.

“A few seeds of this plant were sown in England on the 4th of June and grew to fourteen feet seven inches in height by the middle of October; they were nearly seven inches in circumference and bore many lateral branches and produced very white and tough fibres.

At some parts of the time these plants grew nearly eleven inches in a week.”

Cannabis Sativa, illustration from the English physician Edward Hamilton, ‘Flora Homeopathica’ (1852)

Last Updated on December 20, 2020 by Federico Soldani

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