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Feature Christmas 2009: Diagnosis

Darwin’s illness revisited

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 14 December 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b4968
  1. John A Hayman, associate professor
  1. 1Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, Monash University, Clayton, Melbourne, Victoria 3800, Australia
  1. hayman{at}

    It is 200 years since the naturalist Charles Darwin was born. It is therefore an appropriate time to establish the nature of the illness that he endured throughout adulthood and to refute the many fanciful proffered diagnoses, both physical and psychological, or psychoanalytical.

    Darwin on board HMS Beagle

    Throughout his adult life Darwin endured a chronic, relapsing illness. This was present even before he sailed on HMS Beagle in 1831:

    • I was also troubled with palpitations and pain about the heart, and like many a young ignorant man, especially one with a smattering of medical knowledge, was convinced that I had heart-disease. I did not consult any doctor, as I fully expected to hear the verdict that I was not fit for the voyage, and I was resolved to go at all hazards1

    Sea sickness was a major problem for Darwin, to the extent that he was incapacitated for days at a time. On 30 December 1831 and again in January, he recorded his feelings in a diary (box).

    Extract on seasickness from Darwin’s diary

    • Dec 30th At noon Lat. 43, South of Cape Finisterre & across the famous Bay of Biscay: wretchedly out of spirits & very sick. I often said before starting, that I had no doubt I should frequently repent of the whole undertaking, little did I think with what fervour I should do so. I can scarcely conceive any more miserable state, than when such dark & gloomy thoughts are haunting the mind as have to day pursued me

    • January 1 (1832) The new year to my jaundiced senses bore a most gloomy appearance. In the morning almost a calm, but a long swell on the sea. In the evening it blew a stiff breeze against us. This & three following days were ones of great & unceasing suffering.

    • Monday 2nd Heavy weather. I …

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