Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
As one of the most famous scientists of all time, Charles Darwin’s publication, On the Origin of Species, published on 24 November 1859, is considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology.
What most of us don’t know is that for almost all his adult life, Darwin’s health was compromised by a combination of symptoms that left him severely debilitated for long periods of time. Some believe this may have helped his work since he once wrote, “Even ill-health, though it has annihilated several years of my life, has saved me from the distractions of society and amusement.”
He consulted more than 20 doctors, but the cause of his misery was never diagnosed. Although he tried numerous treatments, he enjoyed only temporary relief. More recently, there has been much speculation as to the nature of his illness.
As a medical student at Edinburgh University, he was too sensitive to the sight of blood and the savageness of the surgery of the day. As a result he turned his attention to natural history. Although suffering from chest pain and heart palpitations in Plymouth, England, in December 1831, he told no one in case he would be prevented from going on the survey expedition on HMS Beagle. For over 40 years Darwin suffered intermittently from a wide variety of symptoms including vertigo, dizziness, distorted vision, severe tiredness, tinnitus and depression.
Darwin had no success with conventional treatments. Hence, in 1849, after about four months of incessant vomiting, he followed the recommendation of his friend, Captain Sullivan, to try the water therapy regimen at Dr. James’ Gully’s Water Cure Establishment at Malvern. He followed a routine of being heated by a spirit lamp until dripping with perspiration, then vigorous rubbing with cold wet towels and cold foot baths, a strict diet, and walks. His health improved rapidly, and he felt that the water cure was not quackery.
He had no faith in the homeopathic medicines that Gully gave him daily but took them as directed. After a few months in the medical facility, he returned home and continued with the diet and the water treatment; but a few months later, his sickness returned during the excitement of a British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting. Dr. Gully insisted Darwin try clairvoyance. With disdain, he saw the clairvoyant and tried to test her by asking her to read the number on a banknote he had in an envelope. She scornfully replied this was something her maidservant did and proceeded to diagnose horrors inside Darwin’s body.
Darwin recorded the effects of the continuing water treatment and in 1852 stopped the regime, finding that it did help him relax but, contrary to his earlier impression, overall was ineffective.
Darwin found that he often became ill following stressful situations, such as the excitement of attending a scientific meeting. Having escaped “smoky dirty London” to his country retreat in Downe, he became increasingly reclusive. He fitted a mirror outside his house, so he could withdraw when visitors were arriving. When he did leave home, it was mostly to visit friends or relatives, though he did endeavor to attend scientific meetings.
Darwin died at 73, an old age for his time. His symptoms had abated somewhat as he aged, which is not typical for most illnesses.
The exact nature of Darwin’s illnesses remains unknown. Unless molecular probing of his biological remains is done, no definitive diagnosis can be reached. It is likely that both organic and psychological ailments combined to cause his lifelong distress.
The issue has been engaged with the controversy between creation and evolution, with allegations that creationists are drawing attention to certain interpretations of Darwin’s illness to damage his reputation and that evolutionists refuse to recognize his faults.