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The Uses of Illness in Darwin’s Correspondence

Photo: Charles Darwin, in a scene from The War on Humans (screenshot).

Editor’s noteDr. Shedinger is a Professor of Religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He is the author of a recent book critiquing Darwinian triumphalism, The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms.

Few things are more central to Darwin’s biography than his nearly life-long struggle with chronic illness. The wretched invalid who overcame chronic bouts of vomiting, headaches, vertigo, flatulence, crippling exhaustion, skin inflammation, and depression to spawn a scientific revolution certainly plays into the Darwinian mythology so prominent today. To be sure, it does seem that Darwin suffered from a variety of symptoms over many decades. But by constantly narrating the poor state of his health almost ad nauseum in his letters, is it possible he was exaggerating the seriousness of his struggles and the extent of his disability for rhetorical purposes?

Nobel laureate Peter Medawar, while viewing Darwin as being organically ill (perhaps Chagas disease), suggested that Darwin may also have exaggerated his symptoms in order to convince others and himself that he was organically ill and then may have been taken in by his own deception. Darwinian biographer Janet Browne notes how Darwin’s illness may have become a convenient excuse for avoiding certain activities like attending scientific meetings or social gatherings where he might have to engage with critics of his work. I think Medawar and Browne are on the right track. Darwin does seem to have exaggerated the severity of his illness, and the evidence that he did so is clear in an indisputable fact of his life that has garnered little attention — Darwin’s obvious sexual prowess!

“Emma Has Been Neglectful”

As the father of ten children (nine coming over an eleven year span), Charles and Emma Darwin clearly enjoyed an active sex life. In an 1852 letter to his second cousin William Darwin Fox, Darwin complains:

Emma has been very neglectful of late & we have not had a child for more than one whole year.

At this point Emma had been almost perpetually pregnant for more than a decade and needed a rest. But Charles obviously saw no reason to put the brakes on their active sex life and was frustrated by Emma’s neglect of her wifely duties. Could someone with such a strong libido really have been as wretchedly ill and disabled as his letters portray? Given how Darwin describes the state of his health, sex should have been the last thing on his mind. It clearly wasn’t.

Darwin began to struggle with his health not long after returning from the Beagle voyage. Between 1837 and 1843, he complains of recurring bouts of illness lasting weeks or months at a time. According to Ralph Colp, the premier authority on Darwin’s illness, Darwin was especially unwell during the period March, April, and May 1839. William Erasmus Darwin was born on December 27, 1839, meaning that he would have been conceived early in this three-month period of heightened illness. In fact, four Darwin children were conceived during these years of recurrent illness.  

The editors of the Cambridge collection of Darwin’s correspondence note that the years of 1841 and 1842 are not well represented in the collection because Darwin was too ill to write letters. But Mary and Henrietta Darwin were conceived during these years. Darwin even claims in his autobiography that he did less scientific work during the years 1839-1842 than any other equal length period owing to chronic illness. It is hard to fathom that someone who was so debilitated that he could neither work nor write letters had any interest in sexual activity at all. Yet there could not have been too many nights during this period when Charles said to Emma, “Not tonight, dear. I have a headache”!

Clearly an Exaggeration

On March 31, 1845, Darwin complained to Joseph Dalton Hooker that he had not had a whole day or night for three years without stomach trouble and great prostration. But George Darwin was conceived probably in October of 1844, so this is clearly an exaggeration.

Early in 1849, Darwin reports that his health failed again to such an extent that he sought hydropathic treatment at Dr. Gully’s water cure establishment at Malvern. Darwin was at Malvern from March 10 to June 30 undergoing a rigorous schedule of treatments which he described in detail in a letter to his sister Susan. He was kept busy with wet compresses, skin rubs, walks, and other activities from early in the morning until well into the evening. Given that Leonard Darwin was born on January 15, 1850, he would have been conceived around April 15, 1849, right in the middle of Darwin’s time at Malvern. So there were other activities keeping Darwin busy that he did not report to Susan (and yes, Emma accompanied Darwin to Malvern)! 

Tomorrow, “Why Darwin Exaggerated His Health Problems.”