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 front.—Drink a tumbler of water & get my clothes on as quick as possible & walk for 20 minutes—I cd. walk further, but I find it tires me afterwards—I like all this very much.—At same time I put on a compress which is a broad wet folded linen covered by mackintosh & which is ‘refreshed’—i.e. dipt in cold water every 2 hours & I wear it all day except for about 2 hours after midday dinner.—I don’t perceive much effect from this of any kind.

This torture was devised by the eminent Dr. James Manby Gully, the author of such works as The Simple Treatment of Disease and The Water Cure in Chronic Disease, whose Malvern establishment Darwin frequented—as did Alfred Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle, Bishop Wilberforce, and other eminent Victorians.

The hydropathy treatment consisted largely of a regimen of sitz baths, foot baths, wet sheet packing, and rubbing with a dripping sheet. The process resembled as nearly as possible what it was intended to remove—namely, a nervous irritation (in the case of dyspepsia, a chronic inflammation of the nerves of the stomach). The aim was to draw the blood away from the stomach and to establish a “counteracting irritation process in some organs distant from the stomach.” Irritating as they might be to the skin of the loins, the sitz baths would nonetheless, so it was promised, make the patient “forget all his sensations about the stomach.”

Hydropathy was only one, and one of the more successful, among the remedies Darwin tried. Many of the other treatments also ameliorated his condition a little, at least at first; but none worked for long, and he remained miserably unwell throughout his life, although there was some relief from his complaints in his final decade. He kept to his country home at Down, in Kent, a shawl-covered, hypochondriacal recluse, almost a refugee, from the social and professional contacts with strangers in London and elsewhere that “knocked him up,” aggravated his attacks, worsened his symptoms.


Darwin’s case thus poses intriguing questions. Can one unravel the tangle of symptoms which Darwin himself carefully catalogued in his Diary of Health and impose a twentieth-century name on a Victorian mystery malady? Or failing that, can one probe beneath the surface of that seemingly happy Victorian family life and expose the neurotic psychic roots of disease? Both disease and genius are unnatural. By naming the one may one not make the other more…natural?

It is a challenge, and there have been many takers. In 1901, Dr. William W. Johnston, an American medical doctor who taught at Columbian University in Washington, DC, diagnosed Darwin’s ailments as “neurasthenia.” In 1903, Dr. George M. Gould, another American physician, objected that they were all due simply to excessive eye strain, asserting that Darwin’s symptoms “are precisely those which the best American oculists find are the most common symptoms of this refractive anomaly of the eyes.” Dr. Walter C. Alvarez, an American specialist in gastroenterologic and psychoneurotic problems, more recently diagnosed Darwin’s ailments as an inherited minor “equivalent” of a depressive psychosis.

Freudians have had a field day, agreeing among themselves only that Darwin must have had a repressed hostility to his father. Dr. Edward J. Kempf, an early member of the American Psychoanalytic Association, also contended that Darwin had “neurotic hands,” suggesting a not completely mastered “auto-erotic difficulty.” Dr. Imre Hermann, in a study published in Imago, diagnosed one of Darwin’s early illnesses as having been caused by the reactivations of a birth trauma, and a “fear of death,” the latter in turn having been “provoked by…old guilt feelings due to killing of animals [the father]….” In 1963, Dr. Phyllis Greenacre deplored the “polymorphous symptomatology” of the case, and diagnosed Darwin’s illness as a severe anxiety neurosis in an obsessional character “complicated by genius.”

While one may confidently assume that the case is indeed complicated by genius, for the other diagnoses there is virtually no evidence. Thus a number of purely medical explanations, directed to the recorded symptoms, have also been advanced. George Gaylord Simpson, the distinguished paleontologist, suggested in 1958 that Darwin had chronic brucellosis. The most popular account, however, offered Chagas’ disease—based on the supposition that the “great black bug” that bit Darwin in Argentina in March 1835 was the Benchuca, or Triatoma infestans, the carrier of the protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas’ disease. This diagnosis, offered by Saul Adler, an Israeli parasitologist, was accepted by Dr. Lawrence A. Kohn, of Rochester Medical School, and by such English scientists as Sir Gavin de Beer and Sir Peter Medawar. But in 1965, Dr. A. W. Woodruff, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, convincingly argued that the disease could not have been Chagas’ after all. Still other purely medical suggestions have included amoebiasis, gout, malaria, narcolepsy and diabetogenic hyperinsulinism syndrome, and acute inherited intermittent porphyria. In 1971, rejecting all these solutions, the anthropologist John H. Winslow argued that Darwin suffered from chronic arsenic poisoning—although this explains his ruddy complexion and rather little else.

These diagnoses, and the objections to them, have been canvassed in the literature with growing frequency in recent years. Ralph Colp, Jr., the acting director of the Psychiatric Section of the Columbia University Health Service, in his new book To Be an Invalid gives an exhaustive account, in minute detail, of Darwin’s symptoms, and shows—by reference to this account—that none of the medical explanations can be correct. He does not of course show that the psychoanalytic explanations are also not correct—for Darwin might have had a repressed hostility to his father that caused his symptoms. But in this particular case the explanatory power of such hypotheses is weak; they are obviously compatible with almost any evidence—and any symptoms—whatever. Darwin himself, though in a different context, summed up the difficulty in such “elastic” theories. “You might as well call the virtue of a lady elastic,” so he wrote to his friend Hooker on July 2, 1854, “as the virtue of a theory accommodating in its favours.”

What then was the problem? One psychological line of reasoning is curiously neglected by the writers on Darwin’s diseases. Although Darwin had been in indifferent health for several years prior to his marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgwood in January 1839, it was almost immediately after the marriage that he became seriously and permanently unwell. Three days before the marriage he wrote to Emma: “My two last days in London…were rendered very uncomfortable by a bad headache, which continued two days and two nights, so that I doubted whether it ever meant to go and allow me to be married.” After the marriage, he was unwell almost constantly.


Is it unchivalrous to suggest that some repressed hostility to Emma or to the marriage might lie at the root of the problem? Of course there is also no evidence to suggest that there was a problem here; but lack of evidence has not daunted those who wished to discover in Darwin repressed hostility toward his father.

Colp’s own explanation for Darwin’s ailment is psychological too, but takes a different tack. Colp believes that a major cause for Darwin’s illness lay in his feelings about evolutionary theory. His health started to deteriorate after he began his notebook on the transmutation of species in 1837. This was also the time when he began to give up his religious beliefs. One can trace a fairly close connection, in the years that followed, between the times Darwin was working on evolutionary theory and the times when the illness was at its worst.

Colp does not elaborate, and his argument remains vague. Such an explanation lacks the specificity—e.g., “neurotic hands”—and also the appearance of depth that one can get from some psychoanalytic accounts. Nonetheless such an approach seems worth pursuing. Although it is far from providing a complete and satisfactory account of Darwin’s illness, it does at least serve to remind us of the immense pressures—personal, social, ideological—that he would have had to face in the course of giving birth to the theory of natural selection.

It is often forgotten that Darwin was, at the time he signed on to his historic voyage on HMS Beagle, a candidate for the priesthood of the Church of England. One of his chief worries, in considering whether he ought to make the voyage, was the suitability of the voyage in preparation for his religious vocation. During his undergraduate years at Cambridge, immediately preceding the voyage of the Beagle, he had read divinity and was satisfied of “the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible.” Most effective in keeping him to his belief was the work of William Paley. “The only part of the Academical Course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind,” Darwin wrote, was the careful study of Paley’s famous Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature (London, 1802). “The logic of this book,” Darwin wrote years later in his Autobiography, “gave me as much delight as did Euclid.”

What Paley, together with his predecessors—such as Jean André Deluc, Robert Boyle, Joseph Priestley—and his successors—such as John Kidd, Sir Charles Bell, William Kirby—did was to bring the “argument from design” to a powerful and coherent statement. The evidence of design in nature was adduced to argue the existence of a Designer, the task of science being to uncover the deity’s design for the world. Thus science, far from being an enemy of theology, was its aid in lifting one “through Nature up to Nature’s God.”

With Darwin’s scientific work, all that changed. He gave an account of the origins of living things which put Paley, as well as Genesis, to nought. As he put it:

The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by a intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by a man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.

The argument from design had already, of course, been shown to be fallacious by Hume and others. A fallacy is, however, one thing; an alternative explanation is quite another. Darwin’s theory removed all plausibility from the argument by providing an alternative account of the creation of species by random variation and natural selection. None of Hume’s and Kant’s logical arguments against the traditional arguments for the existence of God has anything like the power of Darwin’s alternative explanation of the origins of the appearance of design. Darwin’s was thus no minor “scientific revolution,” but an ideological revolution of profound consequence, after which science and theology would never rest easily together again.

It is also sometimes forgotten what practical pressures could be brought to bear in Christian England in the mid-nineteenth century. A professor at the Royal College of Surgeons had published a book as early as 1819 treating man as an animal in an evolutionary context. He was at once threatened with prosecution for blasphemy, and suppressed his own book for fear of professional ruin. When Benjamin Jowett published a commentary on the Pauline epistles in 1855, arguing that accepted rules of criticism be applied to the Bible (which would mean that the Bible bears witness to the evolution of religious ideas), he was denounced for heresy and his salary was stooped. Two of his clerical collaborators were tried in a church court, convicted of heresy, and suspended from their posts (a conviction that was later overturned, when Hell, as some wag had it, “was dismissed with costs”).

Darwin, as a man of ample independent means, was of course in no such danger. But he knew well and at first hand—his wife after all remained a believer—the intensity of Christian faith, as well as the pain and distress of abandoning it. Some late Victorian writers, such as Mrs. Humphrey Ward in her novel Robert Elsmere, portrayed the emotional turmoil caused in intellectuals by the abandonment of Christianity in the face of science. One need hardly doubt that it affected Charles Darwin.

Consciously, however, he appears never to have faced the psychic consequences of slaying not his father (who was also an unbeliever) but his heavenly father. “I have never tried looking into my own mind,” he confessed to his cousin Francis Galton in November 1879. And he wrote that the abandonment of his religious beliefs took place so slowly that he felt “no distress.” He was retching and vomiting and trembling the while; but that distress was never connected in his mind with his religious beliefs. Darwin’s conscious way of dealing with the emotional burden of his deed was by way of gentlemanly behavior, reticence, tact. Although he called Christianity a “damnable doctrine,” writing “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true,” such views were not intended for publication and were in fact published only many years after his death. Thus he refused Karl Marx permission to dedicate Das Kapital to him not out of any objection to its contents, but for fear that its anti-religious views might upset some members of his family.

In the circumstances, his guilt—or whatever one calls it—may well have gone underground, punishing him with all the sufferings of Job. Certainly bad health did keep him from developing his views about religion further. He avoided questions about religion from correspondents, explaining that his bad health prevented him from being “equal to deep reflection, on the deepest subject which can fill a man’s mind.”

This connection would also help to explain Darwin’s long delay in publishing his theory (certainly he had no “writing block”), and his reaction, which has struck so many as being puzzling, when A.R. Wallace independently developed a theory of natural selection. Darwin was far from upset at being “forestalled” by Wallace, and one can almost hear his sigh of relief. The independent discovery of evolution by Wallace worked as an almost ideal solution for Darwin’s anxieties: it was not just that he now had an ally; if the theory of evolution did not work out, Wallace could take the blame as the one who had in effect forced Darwin to publish his own work; and if the theory did work out, Darwin could be expected to get at least part of the credit.

Colp’s work is valuable in opening the way for a full-scale reconstruction of Darwin’s probable emotional and intellectual situation. His book can serve as a firm check on exclusively medical interpretations of Darwin’s malady, which will henceforth have to be fully reconciled with the details adduced in Colp’s text. But the work is less a book than the notes for one. It is presented in a virtually unreadable “inductive style,” in which the apparatus of scholarship is more evident than the substance of it. Most of the book is a long discursive account of all information possibly bearing on the case; only in the final four pages of the text are Colp’s own views presented, and there in an almost perfunctory way.

Throughout the text, Colp is pedantic to the point of silliness. For instance, he keeps telling the reader, over and over again, that the word “sickness” means “vomiting.” Of course, like most Englishmen even today, Darwin tended to reserve the word “sick” for vomiting, but one or two reminders of this difference between British and American usage would have sufficed. As another example, Colp transcribes all variations and corrections in the manuscript sources, whether relevant or not. Thus, to take two quotations from page 21: “I have been much brisker since my return to London, & I [“I” written over “am”] am now getting on steady….” And “prior to that time I [“have been” crossed out] was for nearly six months in very indifferent health, so that I felt the smallest exertion most irksome.” Such transcription practices produce texts that are quite hard to read. And there is no need to convey such minor corrections and slips of the pen unless they indicate, and are shown to indicate, some relevant uncertainty, doubt, or significant change of mind.

Paul H. Barrett’s superb two-volume edition of The Collected Papers of Charles Darwin shows no such scholarly flaws. It brings together 152 articles, notes, letters to editors, and prefaces published by Darwin, many of them hitherto available only in obscure journals. Apart from three lengthy articles which have been published in book form, all Darwin’s known shorter writings are included in this collection. The work, together with an appendix listing Darwin’s books, provides the most complete bibliography of Darwin available today.

The two papers with which the second volume dramatically opens—both published in 1858—illustrate perfectly the extraordinary range and vigor of this chronic invalid. The first is the famous extract on variation and natural selection which Charles Lyell and Sir Joseph Hooker presented on Darwin’s behalf to the Linnean Society—along with Wallace’s essay on the same subject.

The second, placed side by side with this historic theoretical statement, is the more modest but altogether characteristic essay “On the Agency of Bees in the Fertilization of Papilionaceous Flowers, and on the Crossing of Kidney Beans,” in which Darwin probes the ramifications of the fact that bees always alight on the left wing-petal of the Scarlet Kidney Bean. Darwin relates how he has covered rows of kidney beans with thin net and has depressed those petals himself “in the same way as the bees do”!

Only a few months before these papers were published Darwin’s health again deteriorated and he resorted once more to hydropathy—this time at the establishment at Moor Park. On moments away from the water treatment, he would go walking in the woods there with his physician, Dr. Edward Wickstead Lane, who later wrote of these excursions that Darwin was

literally “all eyes.” Nothing escaped him. No object in nature, whether Flower, or Bird, or Insect of any kind, could avoid his loving recognition. He knew about them all…could give you endless information…in a manner so full of point and pith and living interest, and so full of charm, that you could not but be supremely delighted, nor fail to feel…that you were enjoying a vast intellectual treat to be never forgotten….

This is an accurate description also of Charles Darwin’s Collected Papers.

This Issue

September 15, 1977