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