Logo IMG
HOME > PAST ISSUE > May-June 2009 > Article Detail


Darwin’s Enigmatic Health

After his world travels, Darwin became ill—but the cause remains unknown

Keith Thomson

Too Much Information!

Darwin accomplished so much in the two years after the Beagle voyage that one could hardly say that his health, severe as the symptoms might have been, had slowed him down (at least by the standards of mere mortals). From 1838, however, a new set of more debilitating symptoms appeared, and these were to dog him until the last few years of his life.

Darwin kept a detailed diary of his health and was always writing out lists of his symptoms for yet another doctor. The reports make lurid reading. For example, he reported in 1865: “For 25 years extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting … tongue crimson in morning ulcerated … eczema—(now constant) lumbago.” Equally striking (and more shocking) is the fact that, after 1838, he suffered a range of psychological symptoms that appear directly related to anxiety: “shivering, hysterical crying, dying sensations or half-faint … singing of ears, rocking, treading on air, focus & black dots—All fatigues, specially reading, brings on these Head symptoms?? nervousness when E. [Emma] leaves me.” He was often exhausted; pain and gas woke him at night. He would lie awake and fret obsessively about his work: “… my nights are always bad & that stops my becoming vigorous.” He also became convinced, however, that bad bouts of eczema energized him.

Although it is almost embarrassing to know as much as we do about Darwin’s bodily functions and malfunctions, from the color and volume of his urine to the frequency of his bowel movements, he seems almost to have relished describing the details. I am reminded of the marvelous scene in the film The Madness of King George, in which a group of doctors pore over the contents of the royal chamber pot. Of all the symptoms, the ones that distressed Darwin most were the stomach pain, retching and flatulence—which seems always to have been in the form of belching. Things became so bad that a corner of his study was curtained off and provisioned with a basin and towels, where he would retire to suffer.

London’s most eminent doctors were consulted. Dyspepsia and “suppressed gout” were among their diagnoses. The remedies they proffered ranged from arsenic, to calomel (mercurous chloride) purges and doses of dilute muriatic (hydrochloric) acid or “spirits of salt”—hardly a wise choice for an acid stomach. Among other treatments he tried were “Condy’s Ozonized Water” (permanganate of soda) and the “Hydroelectric Chain” (the body was draped in brass and zinc wires wetted with vinegar, which produced small electric currents). Darwin became particularly enamored of various “cures,” and he spent months at a time at Dr. James Gully’s spa in Malvern and similar periods with Dr. Lane at Moor Park. First thing in the morning Gully’s patients would be rubbed with cold wet towels, they would drink cold water, and then they would walk. During the day the patients were draped with more cold wet sheets. Their feet were put in cold mustard water several times a day. There was a strict diet: Darwin wrote, “At no time must I take any sugar, butter, spices, tea, bacon or anything good.”

Most of the nostrums and treatments that Darwin tried (including ice-cold showers in the garden at home) would help for a while, but then their effect would stop. He avoided all stressful situations; he did not attend the funeral of his father or visit his Cambridge mentor John Stevens Henslow when he was dying. Overall, he did best when he eased his work load, restricted his diet, sat vertically, exercised gently and took a little wine at dinner. Since childhood he had had a craving, almost an addiction, for sugar, and he could never give that up, especially not the sweet dessert puddings that his wife served after meals.

The common denominators of Darwin’s illnesses were stress and his obsession with his symptoms and those of his family. He was afraid that he might have passed on his frailties and exacerbated them through inbreeding (his wife Emma Wedgwood was his first cousin). Darwin was more or less free of symptoms when not under stress, but an argument, the arrival of a visitor or a difficult period of intense cerebration would trigger an attack. And Darwin well understood the relationship between work and health: “I find the noodle [head] & stomach are antagonistic powers … (w)hat thought has to do with digesting roast beef—I cannot say.”

Undoubtedly a major factor in the trajectory of Darwin’s health was that, from mid-1837 onward, he had been secretly working on the potentially explosive subject of transmutation of species. It was, he later told Joseph Hooker, like “confessing a murder.” In 1838 he not only discovered the key to natural selection in his reading of Malthus, he also started to worry seriously about finding a wife. He began the year 1839 as a married man but with even more responsibilities.

Notably, as Janet Browne has documented in her wonderful biography, in between spells of work on intellectually difficult and politically contentious books such as On the Origin of Species (1859) or The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Darwin would regroup mentally by submerging himself in a botanical project and engaging in firsthand experimentation in the garden and greenhouse. For Darwin, working on such projects as The Fertilization of Orchids (1862) and The Movement and Habits of Climbing Plants (begun in 1864) was excellent therapy.

comments powered by Disqus


Subscribe to American Scientist