19 August 2014

Charles Darwin and his family's terrible medical condition

Charles Robert Darwin (1809–1882) was born to a wealthy doctor and financier Robert Darwin and his wife Susannah Wedgwood Darwin; plus he was a grandson of the brilliant physician and scientist, Erasmus Darwin. But all the family's medical scholarship and financial resources couldn't save young Charles from a life of pain.

Charles Darwin's famous journey on The Beagle started in December 1831. He was sick from the moment he stepped on the port, before embarking on the ship, and did not stop vomiting until he disembarked back in England, five long years later.

While still rewriting his Journal in 1836, Charles began editing and publishing the expert reports on his collections. He obtained a governmental grant to publish his huge work, Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle, and stretched the funding to include his planned books on geology. He unfortunately agreed to unrealistic publication dates with the publisher. The financial and time pressure must have been enormous, so Darwin's health suffered. Only in his 20s, Charles’ heart pain was alarming, his depression was severe and insomnia was ever present.

In 1837 he went to stay with family in the countryside, to relax, and it was there Charles’ very cultured cousin Emma Wedgwood came into the picture. This was a very clever family, on both sides. But I wonder how restful this break was. Darwin took on the duties of Secretary of the Geological Society, questioned every scientist in the country and wrote as fast as his fingers would go.

In 1838 Charles was fit enough to get married and to father children. Over the next seventeen years Emma gave birth to ten babies, three dying in early childhood and seven living normal adult lives.

Emma and Charles Darwin's wedding portraits,
1838 

Yet Darwin was often bed ridden with stomach problems, headaches and heart symptoms. For the rest of his life, he was repeatedly incapac­itated with episodes of depression, relentless vomiting, severe boils and palpitations. The cause of Darwin's debilitating illnesses remained unknown but it was noted that when he was presenting his papers to scientific meet­ings, the violent vomiting attacks would increase. Fear of leaving home made him house-bound for years.

Friendly commentators believed Darwin’s weak constitution could not deal with having to expose his radical ideas to academic critiques and to Christian out­rage. That is, his symptoms were largely psycho­somatic, probably starting with his unresolved grief over the death of his mother when he started primary school. Creationist enemies, on the other hand, suggested his ill health was totally faked.

Charles' older brother, Erasmus Darwin, was born in 1804 and died a single man in 1881. The two brothers had been emotionally very close all their lives and it was assumed that when Charles heard of Eras­mus’ death, the news provoked an even greater strain on an already ill functioning heart. Charles Darwin died soon after Erasmus; both brothers had reached a decent age.

Now John Hayman has changed 130 years of guesswork in his paper Charles Darwin’s Mitochondria. Darwin’s ill­ness, the illnesses of his brother, their mother, maternal uncle Tom, and a child belonging to the maternal generation etc showed a genetic pattern of maternal inheritance that was the hallmark of mitochondrial mutations. The symptoms were exactly right – severe depression, shaking, fainting, nausea, anxiety, vomiting, visual hallucinations, headaches and cardiac palpitations. The Creationists were exactly wrong.

Prof Hayman then looked at Charles' brother. Erasmus Darwin had graduated in medicine from the University of Edinburgh but had never practised. Instead he spent a life in London as a chronic invalid, suffering from abdominal pain and lethargy. His symptoms suggested that Erasmus had the same DNA mutation as his younger brother.

Darwin not only inherited any weaknesses his own parents had; he also chose to marry, of all the women on the planet, his own first cousin Emma Wedgwood. It was therefore even more fascinating for Prof Hayman to know what happened to their children. Hayman showed that Charles Darwin’s children were unaffected since defective mitochondria can only be inherited from the mother. Emma Wedgwood was genetically clean!

The critics were harsh.
"Natural Selection" was a caricature of Charles Darwin by James Joseph Jacques Tissot 
Published by Vanity Fair magazine in September 1871.



6 comments:

Andrew said...

Thanks Hels. A fascinating insight.

Hels said...

Andrew

The history of medicine is always interesting, but this story seems to be much more.

So many 19th century people seemed to fear Darwin's science... and so they were in no hurry to understand his illnesses. He received lots of attacks and little sympathy from the God Squad.

Deb said...

I feel sorrier for Emma. She was pregnant or nursing non stop for decades plus had a husband to nurse. She must have been one tough woman.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I am definitely due to read a biography of the Darwins. His dedication while enduring these medical problems calls to mind Rachel Carson's writing Silent Spring while suffering from cancer.
--Jim

Hels said...

Deb

When Charles Darwin was very old and frail, he thanked his wife and children individually for looking after him.... for decades. He understood how much energy they had to put into him, at the expense of their own priorities,

Hels said...

Parnassus

The man was a brilliant thinker, writer and scientist, despite having the most miserable ill health I have heard of. So yes, get onto a great biography.

Darwin should be a role model for us now .. he took intellectual risks that modern academics wouldn't touch with a barge pole.