The voyage that changed Darwin’s intellectual and material world – and the way many of us think about ourselves – might also have changed Darwin’s health much for the worse.
According to Dr. Sidney Cohen of the Jefferson College of Medicine, it’s possible that Darwin picked up a parasite on that trip that left him with the chronic digestive problems which he was known to suffer later in his life. Darwin took passage on the famous ship HMS Beagle in 1831 as the ship’s naturalist and conversation companion to the captain. Beginning around 1838, and for the rest of his life, he was repeatedly incapacitated with episodes of “stomach pains, vomiting, severe boils, palpitations, trembling and other symptoms, particularly during times of stress such as attending meetings or making social visits.”
Sidney Cohen, who is director of research at the Division of Gastroenterology at Thomas Jefferson University – along with the poet Ruth Padel, great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin – presented ideas about Charles Darwin’s health at the 2011 Historical Clinicopathological Conference in Maryland. Their analysis of his lifelong symptoms suggested that Darwin suffered from three digestive disorders: cyclic vomiting syndrome, Chagas disease, and peptic ulcers caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori.
Beginning in 1831, while voyaging on the Beagle, the natural world Darwin encountered on his five-year voyage shaped his ideas and led to his theory that natural selection is one way that new species evolve. He returned to England with abundant notes, sketches, and specimens. According to Cohen, he might also have returned with a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi that causes Chagas disease.
Although Darwin’s early years were relatively healthy, the voyage left him with a history of bouts with non-specific fevers and food poisoning. One of these, perhaps the “Chilean fever” he suffered on the trip, could have been an early sign of Chagas disease, according to Cohen.
After his return home, as he mulled his ideas about natural selection and evolution, Darwin was healthy for awhile before the digestive problems that would haunt him for 30 years suddenly began. He vomited daily, with pain, most often after breakfast, although he’d throw up after every meal during the height of each bout. Stress seemed to exacerbate the problems. Oddly enough, when he was vomiting, he didn’t seem to throw up food. Instead, what came up were “acid and morbid secretion.” I’m not sure what that is, but it doesn’t sound good.
Of course concerned, the famed naturalist sought insight from the doctors in his family and from well-known physicians of the time. No one could quite pinpoint the causes of his suffering, although they certainly had ideas. The diagnoses then and in the century following Darwin’s death in 1882 included a dizzying array of unrelated disorders, including chronic appendicitis, repressed anger toward his father, narcolepsy, schizophrenia, and systemic lupus erythematosus. The poor man endured the treatments of his time, such as arsenic, a mercury-containing “therapeutic” called calomel, the application of brass and zinc wires soaked in vinegar, strychnine, and codeine. One can imagine that only the codeine might have been of some use for his pain.
One sign of chronic Chagas disease is an irregular heartbeat. Darwin had episodes of “violent palpitations” that hit him in his 20s, 50s, and just before he died. Indeed, in spite of his decades of gastric distress, he ultimately seems to have died of heart failure. In what must have been a welcome respite, his vomiting problems appear to have ceased during his last decade of life. Certainly, he was able enough at age 72 to be rock climbing when one of his fits of heart palpitations came on.
Darwin’s health history reads like a laundry list of problems afflicting just about every body system, from the digestive to the heart to the lungs and skin. It’s difficult to look back at his history and tease out what was relevant and what has been filtered through medical understanding of the time.
Sidney Cohen and Ruth Padel and many, many others over the years have attempted just that, but whether Charles Darwin truly suffered the trio of Chagas disease, cyclic vomiting syndrome, and peptic ulcers remains a matter of educated speculation.
Dr. Emily Willingham came to EarthSky from The Biology Files. Her background includes a PhD in biological sciences, a bachelor's degree in English, and a published book: The Complete Idiot's Guide to College Biology. She is a scientist, writer, editor, teacher, autism & ADHD parent, and "all around opinionator." Says Emily: "Got an English BA & biology PhD, & I'm not afraid to use them, often together."