Charles Darwin may be best noted for his work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and evolution, but he also suffered from many health issues. One may have been Migraines. Darwin was the fifth of six children born to Robert Waring Darwin and Susannah Wedgwood on February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, England. His father was a competent, wealthy, open-minded physician, and his mother was well educated too. Darwin's grandfathers were quite special in their own right as well as great friends. His paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a poet, naturalist, and scientist who wrote some evolutionary principles in Zoonomia. His maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood of Wedgwood pottery. Darwin was an active, physically energetic young boy, enjoying country sports and all the advantages and modern comforts wealth afforded him. Being in nature was his favorite pastime, and this is where he began his fascination with collecting all things natural, including insects, plants and animals. But at the tender age of eight, his mother died, and he was raised by his sisters and family servants.
He spent the majority of the next eight years at Dr. Samuel Butler's boarding school at Shrewsbury where he studied the classic works of Sir Walter Scott, Gordon Byron, Homer, William Shakespeare and others. It soon became apparent that studying these were not his forte, and he was much happier in the science lab conducting experiments and being outdoors. His father was not happy about Darwin's activities, expecting him to follow the family tradition and become a physician. Thus, he was sent to Edinburgh to begin his medical studies. He did find some enjoyment in the practical side of medicine, but thought the lectures were boring and couldn't tolerate being in the operating room. After a few years, he returned home to contemplate his future. It was during this period he was able to read many books on Christianity and thought about pursuing a life in the clergy. But his love of nature always seemed to win. He spent many hours outside collecting specimens, hunting and learning taxidermy on birds.
In 1827, he started Christ's College in Cambridge where he found his Greek miserably lacking. This was problematic because Greek was required for daily lectures. He was privately tutored at home until he was confident enough to translate Greek without difficulty. By the time he achieved this, all the student housing was taken, so he had to live in an apartment just down the street. Again, not enjoying school, he continued his love of natural science. He and his fellow classmates began collecting insects and beetles, then documenting these collections. In the late 1820's, British Entomology published some of his early insect collection records. His passion of beetle collecting led him to be an ardent follower of John Stevens Henslow who taught him the practice of natural science. In January of 1831, he passed his Bachelor of Arts degree exam, but wasn't awarded his degree until April that year due to the residency requirement.
In 1831, a voyage commissioned by the government to map the coast of South America was scheduled, and a naturalist was to be on board. This position was offered to his mentor Henslow, but he was unable to go on the voyage. Henslow thought Darwin would be the perfect candidate, and when it was offered to him, he immediately accepted. The captain was Robert RitzRoy who had commanded a ship to South America the year before. The HMS Beagle left England in December, 1831, and continued its round-the-world journey for five years. During this trip, he collected and classified animal and geological specimens, all while keeping copious notes. While on his travels, he marveled at the various animals and species he was documenting, saw several natural events such as earthquakes, erosion and volcanoes and would often send home his amazing discoveries for more study. Some stops the Beagle made included Cape Verde Islands, Falkland Islands, Tierra del Fuego, Straits of Magellan, the Galapagos Islands and Cape of Good Hope. During this trip, he carried a copy of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, from which he made many important realizations. He soon became an avid follower of uniformitarianism (the theory that the same geologic process happened in the past occurs today and geologic structures can be figured out by looking at present day actions), all while journaling and making new discoveries. Darwin said "The present is the key to the past".1
When he returned home in the fall of 1836, he starting working on The Voyage of The Beagle that articulated his thoughts, ideas and speculations during his voyage. This was published in 1839. He then collaborated on and edited the five-volume Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, which included a vast array of illustrations and graphs. In 1842, he married his cousin Emma Wedgwood, and together they had 10 children. The Darwins were a fairly close family, and it wasn't until after the death of his second child, Anne Elizabeth, that he really started to lose his faith in Christianity. Seven out of their 10 children survived into adulthood. They raised their family at Down House in Kent, where he traveled from and spend the rest of his life working tirelessly to publish his innovative work. Darwin had a solid reputation as a zoologist, scientific traveler and geologist. He continued with his love of collecting while conducting breeding experiments with plants and animals to refine his theory of evolution.
In 1856, Darwin begins to write his thoughts for a possible book on natural selection at the advice of Charles Lyell. He continues to refine his experiments, views and thoughts and On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, of the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life is finally published in 1859. There are six editions of the Origin as it is commonly called, the final version published in 1876. Ironically on the day of its first publication, Darwin was being treated in Yorkshire with hydrotherapy (using water internally or externally to treat illness) which was commonly referred to as the "water cure." His health was always an issue for him, and continued to be until his death.
He was known to keep detailed diaries of his life and work giving us a bit of insight into his health and worries over it. When talking about his health in his dairies, he included detailed symptoms of gastrointestinal issues, heart palpitations, fatigue, vomiting and in later years headaches. He saw many doctors during his life, including his father, none of which could come up with a clear cut diagnosis. There is some conversation about Darwin suffering from chronic arsenic poisoning which may have been self-induced from using Fowler's solution (an alkaline solution of potassium arsenite that was used in the Victorian age to treat some diseases of the blood or skin) incorrectly for a skin problem while he was a younger. Other thoughts on his illness include obsession with psychosomatic symptoms or Chagas disease (an inflammatory, infectious disease caused by a parasite found in the feces of the triatomine bug) during his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle.
Whatever Darwin's health issues were, he may have made some of the greatest contributions to science we will ever know.
1 van Wyhe, John. "Charles Darwin: gentleman naturalist." The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. March 25, 2011.
2J. B. De C. M. Saunders. "Review: DARWIN'S VICTORIAN MALADY Evidence for Its Medically Induced Origin." The Western Journal of Medicine. January, 1973.
3Rapoport, Alan M.; Tepper, Stewart J.; Sheftell, Fred D. "Conquering Headache: An Illustrated Guide to Understanding the Treatment and Control of Headache." B.C. Decker. June, 2003. (Excerpted online, New England Center for Headache.)
4Merriman, C.D. "Biography: Charles Darwin." The Literature Network. 2008.
5Pasnau, Robert O., MD. "Darwin's Illness: A biopsychosocial Perspective." Psychosomatics. 1990 Spring;31(2):121-8.
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Last updated July 1, 2011.
Published On: July 01, 2011