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Darwin’s Enigmatic Health

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

Keith Thomson

Emma and Charles DarwinClick to Enlarge ImageIt is widely known that Charles Darwin was an invalid for the last 40 years of his life. But the fluctuating trajectory of his health presents something of an enigma. In his Autobiography, Darwin tells us that as a schoolboy he prided himself on his fast running. He became a dedicated sportsman, especially enjoying the shooting season. For two years at Edinburgh University he was quite healthy. As a student at Cambridge University he kept a horse so as to be able to get out into the countryside to collect insects. While traveling around the world on HMS Beagle (from 1831 to 1836), this athletic young man adventured fearlessly on horseback across much of South America. But soon after his return to England, where he took up a life as a geologist and a prolific author, he became a prematurely infirm recluse. Moreover, although his various illnesses were debilitating and he apparently suffered more pain than many mortals could have borne, he was prodigiously productive in science. The final puzzle is that no one has been able to identify what ailed him.

That Darwin suffered physical agonies cannot be disputed. But there were mental torments too. As a youngster, he was shy, stammered and had a weak stomach, especially at breakfast time. He was a loner, partial to long, solitary, self-absorbed walks. As a teenager he started to suffer outbreaks of eczema on his face and lips. These would cause him to hide away in his room for days at a time, full of self-loathing, shunning all company. In the mid-part of his time as a student at Cambridge he suffered from depression and his eczema worsened. To some of his fellow students he was an outgoing sportsman and great companion, but to others he appeared withdrawn and judgmental. From quite early on, Darwin said, intense emotion “knocked me up most dreadfully.”

The first apparent shift in his health occurred at Plymouth in 1831. No doubt he was already anxious enough about how he would endure a protracted voyage around the world in a tiny surveying ship. Then, during the agonizingly long, drawn-out wait for the Beagle to be ready for sea, he started to suffer not only from more dermatitis but also heart palpitations and, possibly, paresthesia (numbing of the finger tips). By contrast, during the voyage itself, he had a few fevers and a couple of long spells of intestinal illness, but perhaps no more than anyone would expect, given the conditions.

On Darwin’s return to England in October 1836, he set himself an ambitious schedule of work, starting with the completion of his Beagle diaries (published as Journal and Remarks in 1839 and later revised as The Voyage of the Beagle). He organized a battery of experts to create monographs of the zoological results of his work (The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, published in five parts between 1838 and 1843). All the while he was working intensely at establishing a place in London’s scientific community. Unsurprisingly, he soon added increased stomach problems to his list of ailments: “My stomach as usual has been my enemy.” He discovered that intense work also brought on headaches, palpitations, exhaustion and more eczema. Doctors, including his father, recommended that he work less, but any loss of time increased his anxiety.

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