Charles Darwin's undiagnosed illness and relationship with his wife

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.

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.

Used to jotting down daily notes on animal breeding, he scrawled rambling thoughts about career and prospects on two scraps of paper, one with columns headed “Marry” and “Not Marry”. Advantages included “constant companion and a friend in old age ... better than a dog anyhow”, against points such as “less money for books” and “terrible loss of time.” Having decided in favour, he discussed it with his father, then went to visit Emma on 29 July. Emma Wedgwood was his charming, intelligent, and cultured cousin and nine months older than Darwin.

On 11 November, he returned to Maer and proposed to Emma, once more telling her his ideas. She accepted, then in exchanges of loving letters she showed how she valued his openness in sharing their differences, also expressing her strong Unitarian beliefs and concerns that his honest doubts might separate them in the afterlife. While he was house-hunting in London, bouts of illness continued and Emma wrote urging him to get some rest, almost prophetically remarking “So don’t be ill any more my dear Charley till I can be with you to nurse you.” On 29 January Darwin and Emma Wedgwood were married at Maer in an Anglican ceremony arranged to suit the Unitarians, then immediately caught the train to London and their new home.

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 Noyes 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.

Darwin chose to marry his cousin, Emma Wedgwood
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