Charles Darwin: Life After ‘On the Origin of Species’

In the previous post of this two-part series, we looked at Charles Darwin’s life through the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. In this post, we will complete his life’s story, and explore the relationship between his illnesses and his work.

Darwin and the Doctors

The years following the publication of On the Origin of Species were marked by controversy, but also the support by colleagues such as the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley and the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker. Though he avoided public meetings, Darwin continued to update his views in six editions of the book and gathered further evidence from studies of domestic plants and animals. He also continued to write copiously in his health diary, precisely recording his symptoms and the status of his bodily processes. He worried that his mother’s death during his childhood suggested that he and his children might have inherited some form of constitutional weakness. He consulted a large assortment of physicians, who were unable to find specific physical signs behind his symptoms, and they gave him a range of diagnoses including hypochondriasis, hyperventilation, allergies, and gout. He began to have crying spells while complaining of lumbago and rheumatism, as well as skin eruptions1. Sometimes he seemed unable to speak or appeared to have partial paralysis or memory loss2,3. Treatments he received included bismuth, arsenic, strychnine, calomel (mercury), mineral acids, codeine, and plant extracts. None seemed to help aside from cold water baths, which appeared to briefly ease his gastric complaints.

Darwin’s study, from Charles Frederick Holder: ‘Charles Darwin, HIs LIfe and Work’, 1891.

Source: Wellcome Collection/Public domain

In later years, Darwin had mixed feelings about his illnesses. Though he had often regretted periods in which he felt too sick to work, he also noted, “Even ill-health, though it has annihilated several years of my life, has saved me from the distractions of society and amusement”4. He continued to work, and in 1872, at age 63, came out with The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, one of the first books to include photographs. Many of his symptoms seemed less severe in older age.

One interpretation was that he was engaged in less controversial subjects, such as his last book at age 71, The Formation of Vegetable Mold Through the Action of Earthworms. (One is reminded of the retired Sherlock Holmes devoting himself to beekeeping.) Another way to look at, he was being true to his longstanding beliefs that over the small ages incremental actions could produce profound effects. In this case, he was arguing that even the lowly earthworm, given geological time, could alter the very topography of the earth. It also had personal meaning to him, as he contemplated death and burial in the soil, with acceptance and comments that he was ready.

By now he was having anginal symptoms, and for the first time in his life, doctors were able to point to active heart disease as a physical counterpart to his symptoms. He passed away peacefully in 1882, expressing kind words and thanks to his wife and children. Though he had thought he would be buried in the local churchyard, his friends and colleagues successfully petitioned for him to be laid to rest in an honored place at Westminster Abbey.

Evolving Interpretations of Darwin’s Health

There has been an ongoing fascination with Darwin’s health. He was examined and treated by some of the most respected physicians of his day, who left a legacy of a wide range of diagnoses, and various writers have suggested over 40 more1. Among these were neurasthenia, cyclical vomiting syndrome, Crohn’s disease, peptic ulcer, brucellosis, arsenic poisoning, Meniere’s disease, and many others. In a sense, Darwin became a kind of mirror, in which prominent physicians have seen reflections of their specialties. Dr. Saul Adler, an Israeli tropical medicine specialist, suggested that he suffered from Chagas disease, American trypanosomiasis, resulting from parasites transmitted by insect bites in South America5. Barry Marshall, the Nobel Prize winner who had discovered Helicobacter pylori bacteria that result in peptic ulcers, proposed that this was the cause of Darwin’s distress6. John Hayman, an Australian pathologist, argued that Darwin’s symptoms, as well as his family history, might be due to MELAS syndrome, a maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA disorder2.

A similar process has taken place in psychiatry. In the years in which psychoanalysis was a dominant movement in European psychiatry, John Bowlby suggested that Darwin’s adult symptoms resulted from the experience of his mother’s sudden death when he was 8 years old. Other psychodynamic theories have been that his symptoms resulted from Oedipal jealousy of his father or anger toward his wife Emma. An idea going back to his original physicians was that he suffered from hypochondriasis, and it has been argued by Cohen, Mackowiak7, and others that he met most of the modern criteria for the diagnosis, now considered to be one of the somatic symptom disorders. He differed from many typical patients, however, in that he did not respond to reassurance with frustration, but rather with gratitude, and he recognized that anxiety might play a role in his condition7. His palpitations, chest discomfort, fear that he might be dying, and other symptoms have led some to make a strong case that he suffered from panic disorder with agoraphobia.

Other psychiatric diagnoses may arise as, inevitably, future generations continue to puzzle over Darwin’s health. What we can say is that he suffered greatly for most of his adult life, and a panoply of doctors, including some of the most well-known in their time, were unable to point to clear physical conditions until heart disease was recognized in his 70s . It is also possible that he had unrecognized medical illnesses that were exacerbated by anxiety. The remarkable feature of Darwin’s health is that although it compromised his social functioning, he was able to work creatively for decades, and put together a new view of mankind that continues to influence our thinking to this day.

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