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Darwin’s Enigmatic Health

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

Keith Thomson

“I have given up all society”

Turning to the mental aspects of Darwin’s health, the child psychiatrist John Bowlby makes a good case that the illness and death of Darwin’s mother when he was only eight triggered in Darwin a morbid fear of sickness, loss and mortality. Certainly, throughout his life Darwin was almost unnaturally dependent upon the support of others. His brother Erasmus was a constant mentor, and through life he leaned heavily on a succession of others: Dr. Robert Grant at Edinburgh, his cousin William Darwin Fox and the Reverend Henslow at Cambridge, probably Captain FitzRoy during the early Beagle years, then Charles Lyell upon his return to London.

After he and Emma were married, Darwin was enveloped in a supportive cocoon of family and friends who catered to his every need. His illnesses may have become something of a crutch. The family’s ministrations both created an environment in which he could work and also reinforced the bonds of dependency. There was always someone to take care of him. Thomas Henry Huxley may have had Darwin’s domestic arrangements (and private fortune) in mind when he ironically noted, “If only I could break my leg, what a lot of scientific work I could do.” This aspect of Darwin’s life was well explored by George Pickering who, in his book Creative Malady, found parallels to Darwin’s condition in the lives of, among others, Florence Nightingale, Sigmund Freud and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Overall, the correlation between the most stressful events in Darwin’s life and his episodes of intestinal and dermatological ill health is too complete to ignore. Chronic anxiety would surely account for many of Darwin’s symptoms, starting with the facial eczema, palpitations and gastric distress. An argument could then be made that Darwin suffered first from a chronic anxiety syndrome compounded by poor diet and genuine alimentary malfunction, and then exacerbated over the years by hypochondria in a destructive feedback loop. We cannot, however, discount the presence of some additional condition such as Chagas.

In the final analysis, the story of Darwin’s illness or illnesses is rather like a mystery novel for which we lack the final chapter. Something might be learned if his remains were exhumed from Westminster Abbey, but I suspect we would still be disappointed. Darwin, who tried so hard to live in private, has become very much a public property. But even in this his bicentennial year we should perhaps be content to allow him some remaining secrets.


  • Bowlby, J. 1990. Charles Darwin: A Biography. London: Hutchinson.
  • Browne, J. 1995 and 2002. Charles Darwin, volumes 1 and 2. New York: Alfred A Knopf.
  • Colp, R. 2008. Darwin’s Illness. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
  • Pickering, G. 1974. Creative Malady. New York: Delta.
  • Thomson, K. S. 2009. The Young Charles Darwin. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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