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Darwin's Illness

Ralph Colp Jr.

Publication Year: 2008

The year 2009 will mark the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. From 1840 to his death in 1882, Darwin was constantly plagued by chronic illnesses that allowed him to work only a few hours at a time and by an obsession with his physical health. Was this the psychosomatic product of stress resulting from the development and public reception to his theory of evolution or the result of a disease or parasite obtained during the world traveler's excursions?

In 1977 Ralph Colp Jr. argued persuasively for the former explanation in his book To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin, now out of print, but considered to be one of the century's most important works on Darwin's life. Expanding and reworking his earlier arguments to take into account new information (including Darwin's "Diary of Health," included as an appendix), Darwin's Illness paints a more intimate portrait of the nature and possible causes of Darwin's lifelong illness, of the ways he and Victorian physicians tried treating it, and how it influenced his scientific work and relations with his family and friends.

Published by: University Press of Florida

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-xi

Charles Darwin is the patient, and his doctor is Ralph Colp Jr. For forty years, Dr. Colp has been examining the great naturalist; no one knows his corpus better. No one since the death of Darwin’s wife in 1896 has possessed more intimate details of his daily existence. And no doctor, biographer, or historian...

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pp. xiii-xiv

In 1977 I published my first book, To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin. In it, based largely on Darwin’s extant correspondence, I gave the history of an illness that Darwin once described as “my old enemy.” At the time Darwin made this comment, he had experienced twenty-three years of daily discomfort...

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pp. xv

I am also indebted to the Syndics of the Cambridge University Library for permission to publish Darwin documents in their possession; to Richard Darwin Keynes for permission to quote from Emma Darwin’s diary; and to the College Archive, Imperial College London, for permission to quote from...

Part I. The Illness

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1. “Violent Fatigues,” “Bad Lips,” and Unwell Hands

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pp. 3-7

The first kind happened when he sometimes reacted to certain events, pleasant or unpleasant, by experiencing episodes which his physician father, Dr. Robert Darwin, and younger sister, Catherine, called “violent fatigues” and which he later called “mental fatigue or rather excitement.” Episodes consisted...

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2. The Beagle Illnesses

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pp. 8-15

On 29 August 1831, through the influence of Professor Henslow, Darwin was offered the position of naturalist on the HMS Beagle, which was preparing to sail around the world. Stimulated by a recent reading of Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative descriptions of travels in South America and the...

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3. Hard Work, Occasional Unwellness, Discovering the Theory of Natural Selection, and Marriage

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pp. 16-23

He returned to England on 2 October 1836, and for the next two months he went “backwards and forwards several times between Shrewsbury, Maer, Cambridge and London.” He met with family and relatives, Professor Henslow and other old friends, and some of London’s scientific men. The most intellectually...

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4. Malaise, Vomiting, and the Beginning of “Extreme Spasmodic Daily & Nightly Flatulence”

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pp. 24-30

In the first weeks of married life at Lower Gower Street, Darwin participated in social events and parties with Emma, continued a regimen of scientific work, and recorded no change in health. Then, on 10 March 1839, when he and Emma were attending a service in Kings’ College Church, he complained of feeling...

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5. Moving to Down and Developing a “Profoundly Tranquil” Routine of Work, Rest, and Walks around the Sandwalk

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pp. 31-40

In his September 1841 letter to Fox, Darwin wrote that he and Emma were planning to move from London and were in the “turmoil” of searching for a country house in which to live. Some of the reasons for this change in living were the need for more space in which to raise a growing family and Darwin’s...

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6. Treatments from Father, Father’s Death, Prolonged Vomiting, and Treatments from Dr. Gully with Hydropathy at Malvern

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pp. 41-48

Darwin’s 1842–45 letters to his Shrewsbury family reveal how he continued to depend on his father for advice, assistance, and medical treatments. In a September 1842 letter to Catherine, he requested his father’s opinion on a letter he had written to Mr. Cockell, a surgeon at Down whom he had decided...

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7. Self-Observation and Doing Dr. Gully’s Treatments at Down and Then Self-Observation and Treating Himself

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pp. 49-60

He trained his butler Parslow to be a washerman and had hydropathy in a small church-shaped hut built for him near Down’s well by the village carpenter, John Lewis. The hut contained a tub with a platform on it and a huge cistern above that held 640 gallons of water. The carpenter’s fifteen-year-old...

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8. Working “Too Hard” on Natural Selection and Treatments at Moor Park

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pp. 61-68

In September 1854, on completing the work of describing all known living and fossil barnacles, Darwin somewhat unhappily recorded in his journal that it was now eight years since he had begun the work. However, his descriptions of barnacles (along with previous work in geology) won him the Royal Medal...

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9. “Dreadfully Up-hill Work” on the Origin of Species and Treatments at Moor Park and Ilkley

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pp. 69-75

On 18 June 1858, Darwin stopped writing his big book because Alfred Wallace sent him what he described as “an essay containing my exact theory [natural selection].” He felt “forestalled” and as if he had lost his priority of many years, and he turned to Lyell and Hooker for advice. His two friends arranged...

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10. Illness and “Anxious Looking Forward”

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pp. 76-84

Weeks after returning to Down, as Darwin worked on a new edition of Origin and felt obligated to answer a “Multitude of Letters” from old and new correspondents about the book, his flatulence accentuated. He complained to friends of being “not worth an old button,” of “having gone back . . . to my bad...

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11. Prolonged Vomiting and Treatments from Doctors Ayerst, Gully, Brinton, and Jenner

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pp. 85-97

On 2 January 1863, after reading how his enemy Richard Owen had mendaciously criticized the work of his friend Hugh Falconer, Darwin had feelings of “burning . . . indignation” that interfered with sleep, and produced an episode of eczema which took “off the epidermis a dozen times clean off.” The eczema...

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12. Prolonged Vomiting and Treatments from Doctors Jenner, Chapman, and Bence Jones

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pp. 98-107

“You ask how I am,” Darwin wrote Hooker on 7 January 1865. “I have now had five pretty good days, but before that I spent fully a third of my time in bed, but had no actual vomiting.” He went on to express frustrations over Jenner’s frequent changes of medications and with treatments by other doctors...

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13. Improved Health and Living in a “Perpetually Half Knocked-Up Condition”

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pp. 108-115

The first acute illness was in October 1872, when after working on the sundew plant Drosera for about five weeks Darwin reported that his “head . . . failed,” and he “broke down.” Emma told a relative: “I have persuaded Charles to leave home for a few weeks. The microscopic work he has been doing with sundew...

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14. The Final Illness

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pp. 116-120

From 2 June to 4 July 1881, Darwin and his family took a holiday at Lake Ullswater and lived at Glenrhydding House, Patterdale. One Sunday at Patterdale, Emma wrote that her husband, after climbing some rocks by the side of the Lake Ullswater, had a “fit of his dazzling . . . and came down.” In mid-June...

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15. Darwin’s Use of Snuff and Alcohol

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pp. 121-123

Two substances that Darwin took for most of his life were snuff and alcohol. He first formed the habit of inhaling snuff when he was a teenaged student at Edinburgh and was given snuffboxes—which he valued greatly—by a friend, Squire Owen, and his aunt, Mrs. Wedgwood. During the Beagle voyage he...

Part 2. Theories of the Origins of the Illness

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16. Theories of Darwin’s Doctors, and of Darwin

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pp. 127-129

There is no record of how Dr. Robert Darwin diagnosed his son’s illness. Some doctors were “puzzled” by the illness. Others viewed it as a form of dyspepsia: Dr. Gully diagnosed it as “nervous dyspepsia.” “Dr. Lane described it as “dyspepsia of an aggravated character.” George Busk thought it was “waterbrash...

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17. Several Different Theories

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pp. 130-133

Soon after Darwin’s death in 1882, a number of accounts of his life—obituaries in Lancet and the Times, short biographies by G. W. Bacon and L. C. Miall, and recollections by Darwin’s Beagle companion John Lort Stokes, his physician Dr. Lane, and his biologist friend George J. Romanes—all stated that his...

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18. Theories of Keith and Alvarez, and a Comparison of Darwin’s Illness with the Illnesses of His Relatives and Children

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pp. 134-138

Sir Arthur Keith (1866–1955), an eminent English physician, anatomist, and champion of Darwinism, postulated that Darwin became ill because of mental overwork. In his 1955 book, Darwin Revalued, he wrote: “Darwin was familiar with the fact that when he overworked his stomach suffered. The puzzling...

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19. Psychoanalytic Theories

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pp. 139-141

In 1920 an American psychoanalyst, Dr. Edward Kempf, published a chapter in his book, Psychopathology, that was entitled “Charles Darwin: The Affective Sources of his Inspiration and Anxiety Neurosis.” Kempf propounded that because Darwin experienced his father as a “repressive influence,” he imposed...

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20. The Possibility of Chagas’ Disease

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pp. 142-145

In August 1958, Professor George Gaylord Simpson—an eminent American paleontologist, evolutionist, and Darwin scholar—wrote a review of Darwin’s autobiography in which he suggested that, instead of a psychological illness, Darwin may have had chronic brucellosis, an infection undiagnosed...

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21. Medical Theories

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pp. 146-148

Since Darwin had severe episodes of vomiting and abdominal pains, it has been suggested that he may have had appendicitis, gastroduodenal ulcer, or cholecystitis. However, although his mother and paternal grandmother died from acute abdominal diseases, the patterns and course of his vomiting and abdominal...

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22. The Possibility of Toxicity from Arsenic, and from Other Medicines

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pp. 149-154

In October 1971, John H. Winslow from the Department of Geography-Anthropology at California State College wrote a brochure entitled Darwin’s Victorian Malady: Evidence for Its Medically Induced Origin. Published as one of the Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, this was the first book...

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23. The Possibility of Illness from Pigeon Allergens

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pp. 155

In 1974 Dr. Howard Gruber, professor of psychology at Rutgers University, and Dr. Paul H. Barrett, professor of natural science at Michigan State University, published Darwin on Man, a transcription of Darwin’s 1838–39 evolutionary thought. In a footnote in this book it was suggested that Darwin may...

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24. Two Psychosomatic Theories

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pp. 156

Professor Pickering believed that Darwin was afraid of putting forward a hypothesis that he knew was right but that lacked scientific proof. He postulated that “the cause of Darwin’s psychoneurosis was the conflict between his passionate desire to collect convincing evidence for his hypothesis and the...

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25. Psychiatric Theories of Bowlby, and of Barloon and Noyes

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pp. 157-160

In his 1990 biography of Darwin, Bowlby contended that his subject suffered from the hyperventilation syndrome. This develops when hyperventilating in an anxious individual results in a fall in blood carbon dioxide, which then produces many of the symptoms that Darwin complained of. When...

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26. The Theory of Dysfunction of the Immune System

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pp. 161-165

Fabienne Smith, a Scottish medical writer, believes that all of Darwin’s variform symptoms, from youth through old age, were due to a dysfunction of his immune system. In two essays, published in 1990 and 1992, she argues that this dysfunction was an inherited genetic trait and that because of “physical...

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27. The Possibility of Adrenal Disease

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pp. 166

There are several serious medical objections to this diagnosis. (1) The adrenal gland supports the body in situations of acute stress. Darwin experienced such a situation in his 1834 illness, which affected “every secretion” of his body. If his adrenal had been only partly available, his chances of surviving the illness...

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28. The Possibility of Systemic Lupus Erythematosis

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pp. 167-170

In 1997 D.A.B. Young published an article suggesting that Darwin’s illness was caused by systemic lupus erythematosus. SLE is a chronic inflammatory disease of unknown origins, occurring predominantly in women, manifested by a variety of symptoms affecting many parts of the body, and often ending in death...

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29. A Dermatological Diagnosis

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pp. 171-172

In the year 2000, Gordon Sauer, an American dermatologist, published an article, “Charles Darwin Consults a Dermatologist,” in which he diagnosed Darwin’s skin disease as being atopic eczema. This was the first time in nearly 120 years of comments on Darwin’s illness that anyone had proposed a diagnosis...

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30. The Possibility of Systemic Lactose Intolerance

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pp. 173-175

Anthony Campbell, a professor of medical biochemistry at the University of Wales and his wife, Dr. Stephanie Matthews, contend that Darwin’s illness fits the syndrome of systemic lactose intolerance (SLI), a new syndrome that they have defined, researched in patients, and written about in articles and a brochure...

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31. The Possibility of Crohn’s Disease

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pp. 176-179

In 2007, two Chilean physicians, Fernando Orrego and Carlos Quintana, published an article criticizing all previous diagnoses of Darwin’s illness, including my own of Chagas’ disease. They argued that the illness was Crohn’s disease, which is an inflammatory gastrointestinal disease, located mainly in the upper...


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pp. 181-186

Appendix. Darwin’s Diary of Health

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pp. 187-257


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pp. 259-321


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pp. 323-332


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pp. 333-337

E-ISBN-13: 9780813045429
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813032313
Print-ISBN-10: 0813032318

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2008