What Was Wrong With Darwin?

To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin

by Ralph Colp Jr., M.D.
University of Chicago Press, 285 pp., $17.50

The Collected Papers of Charles Darwin

edited by Paul H. Barrett
University of Chicago Press, two volumes, 603 pp., $40.00

Charles Darwin was one of the most productive and attractive—as well as one of the most creative—of the Victorians. In the forty-one years between 1839 and 1881, he published twenty-one books and some 150 learned papers (the latter now gathered together in two volumes by Paul H. Barrett of Michigan State University). These books and articles were beautifully, and vigorously, written and composed. They covered an immense territory—geology, geography, botany, zoology, biology, anthropology—with theoretical, argumentative, and descriptive precision. Though most of this work was written well over a century ago, it still speaks with a crisp and engaging authority, based on direct experience; and it is permeated with a good-humored modesty and a generosity toward opponents that bespeak immense power.

Six feet tall, Darwin was a good-looking, healthy-looking, even jolly-looking man with a ruddy complexion. He loved the outdoor life and sports—particularly partridge shooting and riding to hounds. His only known “moral weaknesses” were for snuff and for sweets. With other persons his relationships appear to have been warm, affectionate, uncomplicated. In his dealings with his father (his mother died when he was eight), his sisters, his wife, and his children, there is no evidence—amid an abundance of letters and memoirs—of neurotic patterns. Many were his loyal and devoted friends; and although his evolutionary theory won him strong opponents, he had few enemies—perhaps Samuel Butler is the only one—among those who knew him personally.

Yet throughout those same forty-one years he was an invalid. During this time, so his son Francis Darwin testified, “he never knew for one day the health of ordinary men…thus his life was one long struggle against the weariness and strain of sickness.” He suffered from “fits of flatulence,” coughing up from his stomach acid, bitter, fetid odors. While this was happening, heavy pain would rack the lower parts of his chest. Many times each day he “retched and vomited,” bringing up “acid, slime, and clots of blood.” Accompanying these attacks were headaches, dizziness, giddiness, shivering, trembling of the hands, sinking sensations, palpitations of the heart. He was insomniac and “chronically exhausted.” His skin erupted with boils, rashes, and eczema. During his “violent eczema in the head,” so his friend Sir Joseph Hooker wrote, “he was hardly recognizable.”

No physician of his time—and he consulted the best—could satisfactorily diagnose the condition. Darwin went from one to another, trying every available Victorian cure—from mesmerism (of which he disapproved) to “hydropathy.” In the chilling cold of English winters he would spend the day wrapped in a cold wet linen sheet. As he wrote to his sister Susan on March 19, 1849, about his first venture with hydropathy:

A 1/4 before 7 get up, & am scrubbed with rough towel in cold water for 2 or 3 minutes, which after the first few days, made & makes me very like a lobster—I have a Washerman, a very nice person, & he scrubs behind while I scrub in …

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Letters

Darwin’s Complaint October 27, 1977