On the Origin of Darwin's Ills

By Lybi Ma|Monday, September 01, 1997
Chronic ill health plagued Charles Darwin for most of his adult life. Bouts of nausea, insomnia, chest pain, skin problems, dizziness, abdominal stress, vomiting, palpitations, and flatulence eventually transformed an adventurous young world traveler into a housebound recluse. Many people, including Darwin himself, have speculated about the nature of his illness. Some medical historians have suggested that he picked up a tropical disease during his epic voyage aboard the Beagle. While the debate may never be resolved, two medical researchers from the University of Iowa believe they’ve come up with the best diagnosis yet of Darwin’s condition. The great naturalist, they say, may have suffered from panic disorder.

Thomas Barloon and Russell Noyes studied Darwin’s notes, letters, diaries, autobiography, several biographies, and other writings. The sources describe a textbook case of panic disorder; Barloon and Noyes say that Darwin had at least 9 of the 13 symptoms of the illness listed in a standard physicians’ reference. Considered individually, the symptoms could be explained by any number of diseases, says Barloon. But viewed as a whole, they make an overwhelming case for panic disorder.

Darwin showed the first signs of the disease when he was 28-- onset in the twenties is typical for panic disorder--just one year after completing his five-year voyage as an unpaid naturalist aboard the Beagle. He complained of being unwell, with a swimming of the head, depression and trembling and wrote to a friend that anything which flurries me completely knocks me up afterwards and brings on violent palpitation of the heart.

These attacks so restricted Darwin, say Barloon and Noyes, that he begged off from travel and attending meetings. For example, he declined the Geological Society’s secretaryship, and the anxiety he felt after speaking at the Linnaean Society in London brought on 24 hours of vomiting. In 1842, Darwin and his wife, Emma, moved to the country to live a quiet life. He avoided social gatherings and left his home only in the company of his wife.

Some scholars have disagreed with Barloon and Noyes’s diagnosis, pointing out that Darwin was a member of the Council of the Royal Society and attended meetings frequently in 1855 and 1856. He was also away from home a total of some 2,000 days between 1842 until the year of his death in 1882. One explanation of his ills, suggested by many scholars, is Chagas’ disease, which is transmitted by the bite of the benchuca beetle. Apparently Darwin was bitten in 1835 while in Argentina, and his gastrointestinal complaints are typical Chagas symptoms.

Barloon says a closer look at Darwin’s life refutes those objections. Darwin traveled mostly with his wife, he says. Sometimes he even took his household with him. He traveled with his wife, children, and servants. And he rode in a carriage that had covered windows so he couldn’t see out. As for the Chagas diagnosis, Barloon points out that even if Darwin did suffer from the disease, it doesn’t explain his many other problems.

His condition worsened during the two decades he spent writing On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Barloon and Noyes theorize that Darwin’s anxiety was exacerbated by his fears of how the scientific community would receive his ideas on evolution. During this time Darwin had nightmares about being hanged.

No one knows what brings on panic disorder. Whatever its cause, the disease clearly changed Darwin. During his travels around the world, before the onset of the illness, he rode with gauchos in Argentina, weathered rough seas and earthquakes, and ventured into countries torn by civil war. Paradoxically, the affliction may have allowed Darwin the time to fully develop his ideas. Darwin himself recognized as much. He wrote: Even ill health, though it has annihilated several years of my life, has saved me from the distraction of society and its amusements.

His illness kept him undistracted by minutiae; he kept his focus on his work, says Barloon. Even though he worked only four to five hours a day because he felt too drained of energy afterward, he concentrated hard on his theories, he says. Had it not been for this illness, Barloon and Noyes remark in a recent journal, his theory of evolution might not have become the all-consuming passion that produced On the Origin of Species.
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