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Darwin’s water on the brain

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 04 February 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c741
  1. Gerry Shaper, emeritus professor of clinical epidemiology
  1. 1University College Medical School, London
  1. agshaper{at}

    Can a book about Darwin’s nine weeks in Ilkley add to the vast amount of material published to coincide with his 2009 anniversaries, asks Gerry Shaper

    In 2009 Ilkley in West Yorkshire won the Royal Horticultural Show’s Britain in bloom silver award for its floral decoration, but in 1859 it was an unattractive rustic village, not yet connected by railway to Leeds or Bradford and accessible only by horse drawn coach. Why Darwin chose Ilkley for his “water cure” when there were many other establishments, some of which much nearer to Down House he had tried out, remains uncertain. But Ilkley it was, and to the Wells House Hydro run by Dr Edmund Smith, a homoeopathist, a treatment option that Darwin despised. But Darwin had a solution to his stay among the “sick and suffering of the upper classes—the effete, the neurotic, the halt, and the lame.”

    He wrote an affectionate letter to Miss Mary Butler, a lively, witty, and attractive Irish woman who he had met while staying at a hydro in …

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