On 28 March 1849, ten years before Origin was published, Darwin wrote to his good friend Joseph Hooker from Great Malvern in Worcestershire, where Dr James Manby Gully ran a fashionable water-cure establishment. Darwin apologised for his delayed reply to Hooker’s letter which he put down to his exceptionally poor health:
Indeed all this winter, I have been bad enough, with dreadful vomiting every week, & my nervous system began to be affected, so that my hands trembled & head was often swimming. I was not able to do anything one day out of three, & was altogether too dispirited to write to you or to do anything but what I was compelled.— I thought I was rapidly going the way of all flesh.
At various periods in his life Darwin suffered from gastrointestinal distress – such as bouts of vomiting, retching, and bowel irregularity – as well as headaches, fatigue, trembling, faintness, and dizziness. In 1849, Darwin’s symptoms became so severe that he removed his entire family to Malvern for three months while he took Dr Gully’s water cure. In Darwin’s letter to Hooker, he described Dr Gully’s treatment:
At present, I am heated by Spirit lamp till I stream with perspiration, & am then suddenly rubbed violently with towels dripping with cold water: have two cold feet-baths, & wear a wet compress all day on my stomach. I eat simply, dine at 1 oclock & take several short walks daily. Even in first 8 days the treatment brought out an eruption all over my legs. I mention all this to you, as being a medical man, you might possibly like to hear about it.— I feel certain that the Water Cure is no quackery.—
After returning from Malvern, Darwin continued his hydropathic treatments in a specially built bath at Down. Yet, the water cure did not live up to its name. Darwin experienced chronic episodes of ill health, which increased in severity in the years around 1848, 1852, 1859, and 1863. In a letter to Hooker in April of 1861, for example, Darwin used his delicate physiology to excuse himself from the bedside of his critically ill ‘master & friend’ John Stevens Henslow. Darwin was sure the journey from Down to Suffolk would cause all sorts of problems:
I shd. be certain to have severe vomiting afterwards, but that would not much signify, but I doubt whether I could stand the agitation at the time. I never felt my weakness a greater evil. I have just had specimen for I spoke a few minutes at Linn. Soc on Thursday & though extra well, it brought on 24 hours vomiting. I suppose there is some Inn at which I could stay, for I shd not like to be in the House (even if you could hold me) as my retching is apt to be extremely loud.—
Besides experimenting with hydropathic treatments at Malvern with Dr Gully, at Moor Park with Dr Edward Wickstead Lane, and at Ilkley with Dr Edmund Smith, Darwin sought advice from his consulting physician William Jenner, the stomach specialist William Brinton, and John Chapman, the purveyor of a fashionable spinal ice treatment. In April 1864, Darwin attributed his improved health to Dr Jenner’s advice: ‘drinking very little—enormous quantities of chalk, magnesia & Carb. of Ammonia has checked the vomiting wonderfully & I am gaining vigour.’
Why was Darwin’s so ill? Historians and others have speculated about the origin of Darwin’s illnesses for decades. Some believe Darwin contracted Chagas’ disease during the Beagle voyage; others retroactively diagnose him with hyperventilation, neurasthenia, hypoglycemia, lactose intolerance or other allergies; and still others argue that there were psychological or psychosomatic dimensions to Darwin’s most severe periods of crisis. At the very least, it seems clear that Darwin’s periods of ill health were quite useful. Citing a troubled stomach or a case of giddiness, Darwin could bow out of tedious social engagements, avoid traveling to London, and return to his study at Down to work.