What made Darwin sick?

January 22, 2010 • 6:50 am

Most of you know that, after returning to the UK from the Beagle voyage, Darwin developed a debilitating illness that involved nausea, “inordinate flatulence” (hard for me to imagine the old man continuously passing wind), and, worst of all, bouts of vomiting.  He had this on and off for the rest of his adult life.  If you visit Down House, you’ll find in Darwin’s study a folding screen, behind which is a chamber pot.  That’s where Darwin used to vomit when overtaken by his illness.

What is amazing is Darwin’s output despite the illness. All of those books, all of the correspondence, all of that research — all done while he was feeling like crap.  It makes his achievements even more remarkable.

Anyway, scholars have of course speculated about what made Darwin sick.  The “diagnoses” have been all over the map, ranging from psychosomatic illness (perhaps brought on by fear that his theory would be rejected), to Chagas’ Disease (a trypanosome spread by the “kissing bug” of South and Central America, which produces a disease that can yield some of Darwin’s symptoms).

Now we have a new diagnosis, suggested in a paper from the December issue of the British Medical Journal by Australian developmental biologist John Hayman (and highlighted by the American Medical News).  His verdict: “cyclical vomiting syndrome (CVS),” a pretty horrible malady that seems to have some association with migraines.  Hayman claims that the disease is also associated with a mitochondrial DNA mutation, although the etiology is unclear.  Hayman explains that this diagnosis explains Darwin’s symptoms much better than do previous suggestions, including his recurrent seasickness on the Beagle, his eczema (skin infections are frequently associated with CVS), the vomiting, of course, and even some aberrant pigmentation of Darwin’s skin, visible in an 1881 portrait, that may be due to an imbalanced hormone titer.

I’m not a doctor, so all I can say is that this does seem a plausible explanation for Darwin’s symptoms, although the age of CVS onset is usually much younger: in children under the age of 10.  If it is due to an identifiable mutation in the mitochondria, it may be possible to find it in living members of the Wedgewood family (relatives of Darwin’s mother Susannah), since Darwin obviously couldn’t pass it on.

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Hayman, John, A. 2009.  Diagnosis.  Darwin’s illness revisited. British Medical Journal, Published 13 December 2009, doi:10.1136/bmj.b4968

12 thoughts on “What made Darwin sick?

  1. I saw a news report about the CVS paper a few weeks ago. The idea is quite plausible even though the timing of its onset seems atypical. I had previously supposed that he had Chagas or some other nasty, long-term disease from his journeys in the tropics.

    The “Creation” film seems to imply that he was just heartbroken about his daughter’s death. No doubt he was, but this doesn’t explain the symptoms of his illness.

    But yeah, his ill health makes his acheivements all the more amazing.

    I wonder whether his descendants would agree to extracting some DNA from his remains. He’s buried in Westminster Abbey.

  2. I’ve also seen a report suggesting his illness was down to chronic lactose intolerance. That one seems a little suspicious to me. While the symptoms might fit you might imagine that someone of Darwins intelligence should have realized that he’d be best avoiding eating dairy products.

  3. One wonders if the debilitation due to his illness might have advanced his work (causing him to stay home). If he had been well, he might have traveled more extensively and therefore spent less time in contemplation and correspondence.

    Or not.

    1. Yes, I agree, but with a slightly different interpretation. I would guess that the excessive flatulence part of his illness probably saved him from being depressed over the other symptoms, and allowed him to continue with his work. I totally agree with Howard Stern when he says – “No matter how many times you hear a fart, it’s always funny”. I know when I’m feeling depressed, or have a lot of work to do, I just go to the nearby Taco Stand and get some bean burritos. It cheers me up right away. In fact, I wrote an entire term paper once; laughing all the way through and motivated by only two burritos.

    2. No, Barry, flatulence is not funny. My wife has Crohn’s disease and she suffers a lot. It is painful and embarrassing.

    3. If my own experience is any guide, it’s pretty hard to think straight or get much work done while nauseated. Darwin had to contend with this most of his life.

      It’s not like he just had a sore toe or something to keep him from travelling much.

  4. Most of you know that, after returning to the UK from the Beagle voyage, Darwin developed a debilitating illness that involved nausea, “inordinate flatulence” […], and, worst of all, bouts of vomiting.

    Two words: English cuisine.

  5. Is Darwins mtDNA present in any of his relatives today for this hypothesis to be tested – obviously, descendants of his female relatives – the answers could be in a poster presented as a thumbnail in this interesting post of the American Museum of Natural Nistory:
    http://www.amnh.org/news/2009/12/after-darwin-rob-desalle/#more-514
    I’d love to see the poster in higher resolution. For what I can see Darwin’s Y chromosome DNA could still persist in a few of his descendants, but his mtDNA line appears to be extinct. Exhuming Darwin for samples to be taken would be quite an upheaval!

  6. In the monograph “Darwin’s Mysterious Illness” (Huxley Scientific Press, Oxford, 2010), Robert Youngson, a medical doctor and writer, gives a very readable account of the major issues involved in Darwin’s illness in historical context, and comes to an original and surprising conclusion…

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