The Long List Of Charles Darwin’s Chronic Illnesses And Diseases

In “My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind,” Scott Stossel states that Charles Darwin remained in his bed for more than one-third of his famous voyage on the Beagle, per Brain Pickings. What was his illness? When Darwin was 40, a doctor advised him to create a journal of his symptoms, and he took to the task with characteristic gusto. He listed everything from sickness and heart palpitations to eczema and simply “melancholy.”

Later in his life, he would add such colorful symptoms as “nervousness when E [his wife Emma Wedgwood] leaves me” and “every passage of flatulence preceded by ringing of ears” to the mix. What, precisely, were Darwin’s diseases?

As reported by American Scientist, this is still a bit of a medical mystery. A 1959 theory suggested that he may have had Chagas disease. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, the condition is caused by a parasite infection, which can affect the heart’s rhythm and digestive system and can become chronic if not treated. Darwin wrote of being bitten by the triatomine bug while on the Beagle, which could have given him this illness, but it seems that he lacked some of the symptoms associated with it while exhibiting some that weren’t.

The mysterious maladies

Compounding the problem further is the fact that Darwin’s symptoms sometimes rose and fell with his stress levels. As he wrote in 1862, per Butterflies & Wheels, “I suffer severely from an ailment of a very peculiar kind, which prevents me from all mental excitement.” Peculiar indeed. In his lifetime, Darwin did sometimes enjoy some brief relief with “hydropathic” treatments, but Victorian-era medicine, lacking the knowledge of what was really wrong with him, could do little to cure him.

As he suffered from certain characteristic symptoms prior to his Beagle voyage, an illness such as Chagas disease was not the beginning of his ill health, but may have exacerbated it if present. Butterflies & Wheels goes on to suggest that Crohn’s disease may have been present (a study published by The Royal Society in 2006 considers the final diagnosis to be Crohn’s Disease of the small intestine), along with illnesses as they were defined in Darwin’s time (aggravated gout among them). Malaria and typhoid are also possibilities, while his eczema is now defined as atopic dermatitis, and he also had fibromyalgia (rheumatism) and cyclical vomiting syndrome.

The long-suffering naturist’s full list of ailments may never be definitively drafted, but one thing’s for sure: The workaholic didn’t help himself.

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