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Did Mercury Harm Darwin?


I refer to Keith Thompson's Marginalia article (May-June 2009) and Ann Somers letter in response (Sept-Oct 2009). Charles Darwin suffered from the Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome (CVS), a little-known but well defined disorder linked to abnormalities of mitochondrial DNA. Darwin's eczema (atopic dermatitis) at Cambridge, his sea-sickness on HMS Beagle, his vomiting induced by pleasurable occasions, his headaches, his palpitations, his abdominal pains and his anxiety were all part of this syndrome. His dental problems were the result his repeated vomiting of acid gastric secretions. His mother Susannah and his maternal uncle Tom had the same disorder, perhaps in milder form.

Like sufferers with CVS today, Darwin had relief from water treatment and he knew to avoid attacks by keeping to a life of seclusion. Again, like those with CVS today, Darwin suffered from and still suffers from misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatments. Darwin was certainly exposed to mercury in the form of calomel and arsenic in the form of Fowler's solution but neither of these caused his illness. As his was a mitochondrial disorder, we have only his poor mother to blame.

John Hayman
Melbourne, Australia


Hayman, J., Darwin's Illness Revisited. British Medical Journal, 2009. manuscript no. 2009/647727: accepted for Christmas edition.

Hayman, J., Charles Darwin in New Zealand and Australia: insights into Darwin's illness and his developing Ideas on evolution. Medical Journal of Australia, 2009. manuscript no. MJA-2009-10991: accepted for Christmas edition.

posted by John Hayman
December 2, 2009


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