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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin's illness

Was Darwin an invalid? In many photographs he looks wearied by age, wrapped in a great coat to protect him from cold. In a letter to his cousin William Fox, he wrote: "Long and continued ill health has much changed me, & I very often think with pain how cold & indifferent I must appear to my few old friends … but I … know that the inner part of my mind remains the same with my old affections."

As a young man, Darwin experienced periods of stomach sickness, which he often attributed to brain (or 'noodle')-work. "I find the noddle & the stomach are antagonist powers,” he wrote to his sister, “and that it is a great deal more easy to think too much in a day, than to think too little— What thought has to do with digesting roast beef,—I cannot say, but they are brother faculties."

As he grew older, the symptoms became more crippling, confining him to bed for weeks or months at a time. His most persistent troubles were vomiting and nausea. At the age of 57, he summarized all his ailments for a new doctor. The note makes painful reading:

"For 25 years extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting; on two occasions prolonged during months... , hysterical crying dying sensations or half-faint. & copious very palid urine. Now vomiting & every paroxys[m] of flatulence preceded by singing of ears, rocking, treading on air & vision... All fatigues, specially reading, brings on these Head symptoms ... nervousness when E. leaves me."

Darwin came from a family of doctors and had trained for two years in medicine himself. He consulted over a dozen physicians, including specialists in nervous and stomach disorders. Some of his treatments were dietary, or involved purgatives and alkalis.

He also tried hydrotherapy at Malvern, Moor Park and Ilkley, all fashionable establishments for wealthy clientele. He wrote from Malvern to his friend Hooker in 1849.

"At present, I am heated by Spirit lamp till I stream with perspiration, & am then suddenly rubbed violently with towels dripping with cold water ... I feel certain that the Water Cure is no quackery."

He had a special bath built at home, but eventually abandoned the water treatment, exchanging it for ice. In 1865, he consulted a London physician who applied ice to the spine for relief of stomach troubles. Darwin was hopeful at first. “I think I have gained in general vigour”, he wrote; but the new treatment failed to relieve his sickness, and he stopped after a month.

Darwin's health has been of great interest to modern doctors, who have offered a wide range of diagnoses each fitting their particular medical specialty: Chagas disease, panic disorder, depressive psychosis, gastro-intestinal endocrine dysfunction, hypo-adrenalism (the list goes on). Surprisingly, Darwin's health improved in later life. Emma enforced a strict regimen of holidays, with extended visits to family three or four times a year. Darwin complained about this as well, for he hated being idle. Even at his lowest ebb, he found relief and consolation in science: “it is the only thing that makes life endurable to me.