Darwin's travels may have led to illness, death

May 06, 2011 By SARAH BRUMFIELD , Associated Press
This photo from 1878 provided by the Granger Collection shows English naturalist Charles Darwin. The father of evolution's ailments are the topic of an annual conference in Baltimore on Friday, May 6, 2011 that offers modern medical diagnoses for the mysterious illnesses and deaths of historical figures. The very travels that inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and shaped modern biology may have led to one of the illnesses that plagued the British naturalist for decades and ultimately led to his death. (AP Photo/The Granger Collection, File)

(AP) -- The very travels that inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and shaped modern biology may have led to one of the illnesses that plagued the British naturalist for decades and ultimately led to his death, modern researchers say.

Darwin's ailments are the topic of an annual conference in Baltimore on Friday that offers modern medical diagnoses for the mysterious illnesses and deaths of historical figures. In past years, the conference hosted by the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Veterans Administration's Maryland Health Care System has looked at , and Booker T. Washington. Guest speakers include Darwin's great-great-granddaughter, poet Ruth Padel, who penned the book, "Darwin: A Life in Poems."

Philip A. Mackowiak, the VA Maryland medical care clinical center chief and UM medical school professor who started the conference in 1995, had Darwin on his running list of possible candidates for years.

Darwin, who lived from 1809 to 1882, traveled the world in his 20s cataloging and observing wildlife and later published "On the Origin of Species."

Throughout his life, Darwin sought help for multiple health problems, which included vomiting stomach acids after every meal when the symptoms were at their worst. He was diagnosed with dozens of conditions including schizophrenia, appendicitis and lactose intolerance.

"It is particularly poignant that the scientists and physicians of his time could not provide Darwin, the father of modern life sciences, with relief from the ailments that affected so much of his life," Mackowiak said.

The information used to evaluate Darwin's case came from several sources, Mackowiak said, including the naturalist's own letters, in which he wrote extensively about his complaints and his worries that he had passed on his illnesses to his children.

Gastroenterologist Dr. Sidney Cohen, Thomas Jefferson University medical college professor of medicine and research director, assessed Darwin's ailments for the conference and identified three illnesses. Cohen, who had no X-rays or blood studies to use in his assessment, said he had only the documented symptoms: "an analysis of this journey of invalidism that he suffered throughout his life."

"It is a symptom-based specialty, though now we have some extraordinary diagnostic tools," he said. "It would have been nice to have some CT scans."

Cohen concluded that Darwin suffered from cyclic vomiting syndrome early in his life. His weight and nutrition remained normal since he rarely vomited food, just stomach acid and other secretions.

The gastroenterologist also believes Darwin contracted Chagas disease, a parasitic illness that can lie dormant for years, during a five-year trip around the globe on the HMS Beagle in his 20s. The hypothesis has been advanced in the past. That illness would describe the heart disease that beset Darwin later in life and eventually caused his death, Cohen said.

He believes Darwin also suffered from Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria that cause peptic ulcer disease and often occurs with Chagas.

Cohen's research into Darwin's ailments gave him a deeper appreciation for Darwin and the impact of his scientific work, despite his ailments.

"It's hard to know how it affected his work," Mackowiak said. "But his productivity never waned."

Explore further: Japan's 'sacred' rice farms rotting from inside

not rated yet
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Why didn't Darwin discover Mendel's laws?

Feb 27, 2009

Mendel solved the logic of inheritance in his monastery garden with no more technology than Darwin had in his garden at Down House. So why couldn't Darwin have done it too? A Journal of Biology article argues that Darwin ...

Scientists consider Darwin's contribution

Feb 12, 2008

Charles Darwin's upcoming 200th birthday is prompting some U.S. scientists to consider the Victorian-era naturalist's contribution to modern science.

'Darwin's delay' the stuff of myth

Mar 28, 2007

The long-held view that Charles Darwin avoided publishing his theory of evolution for 20 years because he was afraid of the reaction it would provoke is being rebutted as a myth by a Cambridge University academic.

Recommended for you

UN biodiversity meet commits to double funding

Oct 17, 2014

A UN conference on preserving the earth's dwindling resources wrapped up Friday with governments making a firm commitment to double biodiversity aid to developing countries by 2015.

User comments : 7

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

NickFun
not rated yet May 06, 2011
And he lived to be 73 at a time when few people lived past 50. He still lived a long life.
Johannes414
1 / 5 (2) May 07, 2011
Evolution did not make him happy. The God that he rejected has given millions life, joy and peace however. Who is right?
FrankHerbert
1 / 5 (2) May 07, 2011
Darwin. Google "depressive realism". Ignorance is bliss :-).
Doug_Huffman
1 / 5 (1) May 07, 2011
The blissful are ignorant.

Good people ought to be armed as they will, with wits and Guns and the Truth. Retire. Strike! If you, moocher, can't retire then ask yourself why? Atlas is shrugging.
Johannes414
1 / 5 (1) May 07, 2011
Jesus said: you shall know the truth and the truth shall set your free. He is the truth, the way and the life. Knowledge of the world that is temporary will lead to sorrow, but knowledge of Christ leads to joy.
js81pa
not rated yet May 07, 2011
Some very loving and caring people would prefer to not sit around and twiddle their thumbs on their high horse. They would rather know the truth, even if it is not what they wish or want to hear.
As for Jesus, he also said, "Though that hathe no sin, cast the first stone." and "We are all brothers." Good stuff but I disagree with your stance on science. Science is also truth and knowledge and without it, we would be back in the stone ages. It is your God that said to go out and multiply and then never said to stop. The population expansion creates a tremendous amount of problems that the world has to try to figure out. If we didn't figure it out, we would start to resort back to our animalistic nature which is also forbidden by the scripts.
js81pa
not rated yet May 08, 2011
As for evolution, think of it this way. You can believe there are other means to speciation but the idea that an organism has to adapt over generations to survive makes sense, we wouldn't or couldn't be here without it. Your God would not be able to create us in this universe without that very concept. DNA proves connections between different "species" as well. The beauty of it is that we are all inter-connected. If you refuse to accept certain things about science it is your perogotive but when you need help from the medical professionals, just remember where they got there knowledge from. Although there is some medical information in the bible regarding being uncleaneth and so fourth, the majority of it came from man.