Charles Darwin's illness

Charles Robert Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882) was an English naturalist who realised and presented compelling evidence that all species of life have evolved over time from common ancestors, through the process he called natural selection and now forms the basis of modern evolutionary theory. Darwin’s scientific discovery remains the foundation of biology, as it provides a unifying logical explanation for the diversity of life.

For much of his adult life Charles Darwin's illness repeatedly affected him with an uncommon combination of symptoms, leaving him severely debilitated for long periods of time, incapable of normal life and intellectual production, staying in bed most of the time for months. Charles Darwin wrote that "Constant attacks....makes life an intolerable bother and stops all work".

He consulted with more than 20 doctors, but with the medical science of the time the cause remained undiagnosed. He tried all available treatments, but at best they had only temporary success. More recently, there has been much speculation as to the nature of his illness.

As a student of medicine at Edinburgh University, Darwin found that he was too sensitive to the sight of blood and the brutality of surgery at the time, so he turned his attention to natural history, an extramural interest he developed further when studying at the University of Cambridge to qualify as a clergyman.

On 10 December 1831, as he waited in Plymouth for the voyage on HMS Beagle to begin, he suffered from chest pain and heart palpitations, but told no one at the time in case it stopped him from going on the survey expedition. During the voyage he suffered badly from sea-sickness during the eighteen months he was at sea, but he spent much of the 3 years 3 months he was on land in strenuous exploration. In Argentina at the start of October 1833 he collapsed with a fever. He spent two days in bed, then memories of a young shipmate who had died of the fever persuaded him to take a boat down river to Buenos Aires, lying ill in his cabin till the fever passed. On 20 September 1834 while returning from a horseback expedition in the Andes mountains, he fell ill, and spent the month of October in bed in Valparaiso. In his journal for 25 March 1835, while to the east of the Andes near Mendoza, he noted "an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca, a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the Pampas" which is associated with Chagas' disease.

After the voyage ended on 2 October 1836 he quickly established himself as an eminent geologist, at the same time secretly beginning speculations on transmutation as he conceived of his theory. On 20 September 1837 he suffered "an uncomfortable palpitation of the heart", and as "strongly" advised by his doctors, left for a month of recuperation in the countryside. That October, he wrote "Of late anything which flurries me completely knocks me up afterwards, and brings on a violent palpitation of the heart." In the spring of 1838 he was overworked, worried and suffering stomach upsets and headaches which caused him to be unable to work for days on end. These intensified and heart troubles returned, so in June he went "geologising" in Scotland and felt fully recuperated. Later that year, however, bouts of illness returned - a pattern which would continue. He married Emma Wedgwood on 29 January 1839, and in December of that year as Emma's first pregnancy progressed, he fell ill and accomplished little during the following year.

For over forty years Darwin suffered intermittently from various combinations of symptoms such as malaise, vertigo, dizziness, muscle spasms and tremors, vomiting, cramps and colics, bloating and nocturnal intestinal gas, headaches, alterations of vision, severe tiredness /nervous exhaustion, dyspnea, skin problems such as blisters all over the scalp and eczema, crying, anxiety, sensation of impending death and loss of consciousness, fainting, tachycardia, insomnia, tinnitus, and depression.

Water treatment

Darwin had no success with conventional treatments. In 1849 after about four months of incessant vomiting he took up the recommendation of his friend Captain Sulivan and cousin Fox to try the water therapy regimen at Dr James Gully's Water Cure Establishment at Malvern. He read Gully's book which provided case histories and had a price list at the back. Darwin rented a villa at Malvern for his family and started a two month trial of the treatment on 10 March. Gully agreed with Darwin's self diagnosis of nervous dyspepsia, and set him a routine including being heated by a spirit lamp until dripping with perspiration, then vigorous rubbing with cold wet towels and cold foot baths, a strict diet, and walks. Darwin enjoyed the attention and the demanding regime which left him no time to feel guilty about not working. His health improved rapidly and he felt that the water-cure was "no quackery". But, in September his sickness returned during the excitement of a British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting.

Continuing illness

Darwin desperately tried many different therapies, within the limitations of medical science of his time. He took all kinds of medicines, including bismuth compounds and laudanum and even tried quack therapies, such as electrical stimulation of the abdomen with a shocking belt. On 16 May 1865 he wrote to John Chapman, who was now qualified specialist in dyspepsia, sickness and psychological medicine. Chapman had sent Darwin a book about a therapy for sea-sickness of applying ice-bags to the small of the back, and Darwin invited him to Down House to try out this therapy. In a manuscript dated 20 May 1865, thought to have been for Chapman, Darwin described his symptoms: “ Age 56-57. - For 25 years extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting, on two occasions prolonged during months. Vomiting preceded by shivering, hysterical crying, dying sensations or half-faint. & copious very palid urine. Now vomiting & every paroxys[m] of flatulence preceded by singing of ears, rocking, treading on air & vision. focus & black dots – All fatigues, specially reading, brings on these Head symptoms ?? nervousness when E[mma] leaves me..." [the list continues]”

In his autobiography of 1876, Darwin wrote of his illness, emphasising that it was brought on by 'excitement':
“Few persons can have lived a more retired life than we have done. Besides short visits to the houses of relations, and occasionally to the seaside or elsewhere, we have gone nowhere. During the first part of our residence we went a little into society, and received a few friends here; but my health almost always suffered from the excitement, violent shivering and vomiting attacks being thus brought on. I have therefore been compelled for many years to give up all dinner-parties; and this has been somewhat of a deprivation to me, as such parties always put me into high spirits. From the same cause I have been able to invite here very few scientific acquaintances.
My chief enjoyment and sole employment throughout life has been scientific work; and the excitement from such work makes me for the time forget, or drives quite away, my daily discomfort. I have therefore nothing to record during the rest of my life, except the publication of my several books. ...”

Possible Causes

Medical science has tried repeatedly to pinpoint the etiology and many hypotheses were made, such as:

  • Psychosomatic disease
  • Panic disorder
  • Chagas' disease
  • Ménière's disease
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Lupus erythematosus
  • Arsenic poisoning
  • Multiple allergies
  • Hypochondria
  • Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome

Relationship with father

Rempf Edward, a psychologist, imputes a psychic cause based on the theory of Oedipal complex, proposing that Darwin's illness was "an expression of repressed anger toward his father" (the physician Robert Darwin). Rempf believed that Darwin's "complete submission" to a tyrannical father prevented Darwin from expressing anger towards his father and then subsequently toward others. In a similar diagnosis English psychiatrist Dr. Rankine Good stated, "Thus, if Darwin did not slay his father in the flesh, then he certainly slew the Heavenly Father in the realm of natural history", suffering for his "unconscious patricide" which accounted for "almost forty years of severe and crippling neurotic suffering."

Relationship with wife, nervousness about being left alone

Peter Brent's biography "Darwin: A Man of Enlarged Curiosity" writes that Charles and Emma Darwin's "ties to each other were linked to childhood and the very beginnings of memory. They had a common history, a joint tradition. It is hard to think their relationship a passionate one, but it was happy, and the happiness had deep roots." Bradbury7 - himself a social psychologist - draws on this biography to argue that in Darwin's letters, Emma was "always the mother, never the child, Darwin always the child, never the father." who gave his wife the nickname "mammy", writing "My dearest old Mammy ... Without you, when sick I feel most desolate .. Oh Mammy, I do long to be with you and under your protection for then I feel safe." Brent states that it is difficult to see that that this is a thirty-nine year old man writing to his wife and not a young child writing to his mother. Barloon and Noyes1 quote Darwin's admission to Dr. Chapman of "nervousness when Emma leaves me" which they interpret as a fear of being alone associated with his panic disorder.

Like his mother, Darwin's wife Emma was devoutly Unitarian. His father, speaking from experience, warned Charles before he proposed to Emma that "some women suffered miserably by doubting about the salvation of their husbands, thus making them likewise to suffer." Darwin did tell Emma of his ideas at that stage, and while she was deeply concerned about the danger to his afterlife expressed in the Gospel "If a man abide not in me...they are burned", she married him and remained fully supportive of his work throughout their marriage. She read and helped with his "Essay" setting out his theory in 1844, long before he showed his theory to anyone else. She went through the pages, making notes in the margins pointing out unclear passages and showing where she disagreed. As his illness progressed she nursed him, restraining him from overworking and making him take holiday breaks, always helping him to continue with his work.

Combined causes

From a clinical point of view, perhaps Darwin suffered from more than one disease, and had many psychosomatic complications and phobias arising from his debilitating condition. This is known to happen with many patients today, such as in severe cases of panic disorder, usually accompanied by hypochondria and depression.

The exact nature of Darwin's illness or illnesses remain mysterious at this time. Unless sophisticated molecular probing of his biological remains is allowed, no definitive diagnosis can be reached. At the same time, historical investigations are probabilistic. There appears to be increasing support for the diagnosis that both organic and psychological ailments combined to cause his illness.

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