“Survival of the fittest” may have been the phrase adopted by Charles Darwin to dramatise his ideas, but the proponent of evolution was himself rarely a healthy man. Now an Australian doctor has offered a belated diagnosis of the recurrent bouts of debilitating illness from which the celebrated 19th-century scientist suffered.
John Hayman, associate professor at Monash University in Melbourne, suggested that the author of On the Origin of Species was the victim of an unusual inherited disorder known as “cyclical vomiting syndrome“.
The precise nature of Darwin’s condition, which intermittently erupted into a peculiar set of physical symptoms, has long been a historical and medical mystery. Nausea, vomiting, headaches, stomach and skin problems troubled him for most of his adult life. At times he was so disabled by his illness that he became a virtual recluse.
“I was … troubled with palpitations and pain about the heart, and like many a young ignorant man, especially one with a smattering of medical knowledge, was convinced that I had heart-disease,” he wrote. “I did not consult any doctor, as I fully expected to hear the verdict that I was not fit for the voyage.”
In the past, there has been speculation that Darwin may have been a hypochondriac, experienced panic disorders, been emotionally scarred by “repressed anger towards his father”, nervous about relations with his wife or have felt guilt over conflicts with his earlier religious belief. Possible physical diagnoses have included middle ear infection, arsenic poisoning and tropical parasitic infections, such as Chagas disease.
Hayman, of the anatomy and developmental biology department at Monash University, argues in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal that it is time to “refute the many fanciful proffered diagnoses, both physical and psychological or psychoanalytical”.
He said cyclical vomiting syndrome mainly affects children but can appear for the first time in adulthood. “The syndrome is related to migraine but is linked to genetic abnormalities. Classic symptoms of cyclical vomiting syndrome include severe sickness, headaches, anxiety and intense abdominal pain. Many patients also suffer from eczema and recurrent skin infections.”
Darwin’s mother and members of her family suffered from many of these conditions, Hayman said. Darwin’s mother died from severe abdominal pains when he was eight.
“Darwin was not aware of mitochondria or of genes and genetic mutations but he was very aware of random variations within species.” This was the keystone for his theory of the survival of the fittest, the driving mechanism of evolution.
“His personal inherited genetic variation made him substantially ‘less fit’, but his survival prospects were greatly increased by his driving intellect; loyal colleagues; devoted wife, family, and household servants; and personal wealth.”
The illness did not impair his fertility, as Hayman also observed. As well as being the father of modern biology, Darwin fathered 10 children, “all conceived during his long period of ill health”.