Silence about Darwin's long, humiliating illness is a major condition of the credibility of the Darwin Legend. The illness was well known to his contemporaries (since it contracted his social life to nearly zero), and was discussed by his first biographers. Two psychiatrically trained authors, Ralph Colp, Jr and John Bowlby, have studied the evidence. Both acknowledge, as Darwin himself said, that his suffering was closely associated with the depressive effects of his secularist vision. This experience was common among his contemporaries, who paired the optimism of progress with a backlash called pessimism, degeneration, and nihilism. Among the many who experienced this dread are Herbert Spencer, Thomas Huxley, Francis Galton, Feodor Dostoevsky, Max Weber, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Here is Darwin's own description of his symptoms:
‘Age 56-57. - For twenty-five years extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting, on two occasions prolonged during months. Vomiting preceded by shivering, hysterical crying[,] dying sensations or half-faint. & copious and very palid urine. Now vomiting & every passage of flatulence preceded by ringing of ears, treading on air & vision. focus & black dots[,] Air fatigues, specially risky, brings on the Head symptoms[,] nervousness when E[mma]. leaves me...'. From late 1863 to April 1864 he was ‘spreadeagled every day on a sofa, steadily going downhill, wishing he were dead one day, wanting to live and do a little more work on the next.'
Despite this disruptive illness, Darwin not only wrote voluminously, but was attentive to family life, to his responsibililties to his village affairs, conducted successful investments activity, and kept meticulous accounts of household expenditures (he was a pinch-penny). Not to mention his vast correspondence. It's like a miracle.
Grumpy's diagnostic heuristic, Avoidant Personality Disorder, flows in the stream of his numerous psychological studies.
A noted Darwin historian probes the naturalist's inner life
Natural History Magazine — November 1, 2005
Psychiatrist Ralph Colp Jr.'s favorite patient has been buried in Westminster Abbey since 1882. Nevertheless, Colp has come to know him
intimately through unpublished letters, his medical diary, and
written reminiscences of his family and friends in British and American archives. The patient is Charles Darwin, about whom Colp has
written many articles and the classic, 1977 book, To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin, which he is currently revising.
After practicing surgery for five years, Colp switched to psychiatry
and became a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and
Neurology (Psychiatry) in 1965. He served as attending psychiatrist
at Columbia University Health Services until 1993, and is now a
senior associate in the Program of Human Sexuality and Sex Therapy at
the New York University Medical Center and a member of the
Psychohistory Forum. But it is his labor of love that has earned him
a reputation as the dean of Darwin historians. In a series of
conversations, Natural History questioned Colp, now 81, about
Darwin?s personality, family life, politics, and illness.
Natural History: When did you first become interested in Charles
Ralph Colp Jr.: My father was a surgeon, and in his office were framed portraits of Darwin, Freud, Huxley, Lister, and Pasteur. As a child, I thought they were heroes of science, much nobler than my father and his colleagues who practiced medicine as a business.
When I was in high school, in the 1940s, my biology teacher
said, ‘Nobody believes in Darwinism any more,' yet she kept
mentioning him. I saw that he was exerting a force, still stirring up controversies sixty years after his death. But my interest from the first staring at Darwin?s portrait when I was a boy, was, ?What was he like as a man?? I really started taking him on seriously in 1959, when I was thirty-five, and there were all the scientific
celebrations and press reports about the centenary of the Origin of
NH: How well do you feel you know him?
Colp: Probably much better than I know some of my living friends and
patients. I'm interested in physical details as well as his emotional
and inner life. Even the way he walked, or worked, or the quality of
his laugh--it was thin, musical, and hollow sounding, like a peal. He
and Thomas Huxley liked to sit and joke and laugh for hours.
Darwin lived an exemplary life as an English country gentleman,
the affectionate father to a brood of seven children.
Sometimes he sat on the local magistrate's bench as a Justice of the
Peace, ‘to help keep order in the neighborhood.' He was always kind
and considerate to his servants and gardeners, and taught his
children to always address them with ‘please' and ‘thank you.'
NH: What are your views on his illness?
Colp: When I first began in 1959, I noticed that the many biographies of him had little to say about the causes and nature of
the illness that dominated his life. In To Be an Invalid, I published
the first comprehensive account of his illness. I showed that as a
youth he suffered brief psychosomatic symptoms from transient mental
stresses, and as an adult he suffered protracted psychosomatic illness
'altered sensations, cardiac palpitations, headaches, and trembling'
mainly from working on his controversial theory of evolution. He had
told a friend that to abandon Church teachings on the immutability of
species was 'like confessing a murder.' He delayed writing the Origin
of Species for more than twenty years, until a younger naturalist,
Alfred Russel Wallace, forced his hand. His endless agonizing, guilt,
and self-flagellation over writing and publishing could be described
as obsessive. When his theory was accepted and he stopped working on
it, his health improved.
Darwin was always a sensitive individual, but after the Beagle
voyage he became even more so, and two years afterward suffered a
debilitating illness. His condition points to an organic disease. But
Darwin's own doctors were baffled. Not until 1959 did Saul Adler, an
Israeli parasitologist, suggest that Darwin's illness was Chagas
disease. During Darwin's lifetime the disease was not yet known to
medicine, so it is no wonder it was never diagnosed.
In 1835 Darwin had recorded in his diary that he was bitten by
the 'Benchuca [vinchuca] bug . . . called the great black bug of the
Pampas,' a vector of the parasitic trypanosome that causes Chagas'
disease [see 'In the Heat of the Night,' by Graciela Flores, Natural
History, July-August 2005]. Darwin appears to have had the arrested
form of the disease, which can appear years after the bite and causes
weakness, nausea, and flatulence for many years.
NH: How did the illness affect his daily life?
Colp: He could only work for two or three hours a day, and therefore
followed a regimen of alternating work and rest. Yet his dogged
determination carried him through thousands of experiments, seventeen
books, and a hundred scientific papers. His wife, Emma, would
regulate any visitors and strictly limit the time they were with him;
he rarely left home and described himself as a 'semi-invalid.' But he
often used his illness as a convenient excuse to avoid unwanted
visitors and dinner parties.
NH: Can we discuss the death of his daughter Annie, on which you've
written the article 'Charles Darwin's 'insufferable grief' [Free
Associations 9:7 — 44 (1987)]?
Colp: He had an enormous capacity for love, but was inhibited in
expressing it. His sisters, who raised him, never talked about his
mother, who died when he was eight years old. He learned to hold back
his emotions, but when Annie died at the age of ten in April 1851
from 'fever' (which some now believe was tuberculosis), he was
inconsolable. It was the first time anyone had seen him cry. His
sister-in-law was present and wept with him.
Darwin expressed his feelings in a moving tribute to Annie,
containing precise observations of her, along with his outpourings of
affection. Here are some passages:
Her dear face now rises before me, as she used sometimes to come
running down stairs with a stolen pinch of snuff for me, her whole
form radiant with the pleasure of giving pleasure. . . . She would at
almost anytime spend half-an-hour in arranging my hair, 'making it,'
as she called it, ‘beautiful,' or in smoothing, the poor dear
darling, my collar or cuffs, in short in fondling me. She liked being
kissed; indeed every expression in her countenance beamed with
affection & kindness, & all her habits were influenced by her loving
disposition. . . .
All her movements were vigorous, active, & unusually graceful:
when going round the sand-walk with me, although I walked fast, yet
she often used to go before pirouetting in the most elegant way, her
dear face bright all the time, with the sweetest smiles. . . . [In
the last days of her illness,] when so exhausted that she could
hardly speak, she praised everything that was given her, & said some
tea 'was beautifully good.' When I gave her some water, she said 'I
quite thank you'; & these, I believe were the last precious words
ever addressed by her dear lips to me. . . . We have lost the joy of
the Household, and the solace of our old age.
Annie's death seemed to him so unjust that it precipitated his loss
of belief in God.
NH: Did he have strong feelings on social issues?
Colp: Yes, he grew up in an anti-slavery household. The Wedgwood —
Darwin family had a long tradition of Abolitionist support. A famous
Wedgwood ceramic plaque shows a slave in chains with the slogan, ?Am
I not a man and a brother?
In Brazil he witnessed slavery firsthand, and never forgot the
screams of a tortured slave coming from a house in Pernambuco.
Watching or hearing people in pain made him physically ill. That was
why he could not become a surgeon himself, as his father had wished.
He fled from the operating theater at Edinburgh when he could not
bear the screams of a strapped-down child in surgery and never
returned to pursue his medical career. He was against slavery not
only on political and humane grounds, but also because it made him
literally sick to his stomach.
NH: And yet he abandoned the cause during the American Civil War?
Colp: In 1861 Union troops boarded the English mail steamer RMS
Trent and seized two Confederate officials who were bound for London
to seek support for the Rebels. The English declared that to be an
act of war unless the pair was freed.
Darwin began to fear that the provocation by the North might
lead to war between England and America. So he stopped supporting the
Union cause, and opined that the North should learn to co-exist
peacefully with the slave-owning South. Here was the strongest
political principle that he had, and he compromised it out of petty
patriotism. What the hell was wrong with him? He knew better than that.
NH: Has your intimate knowledge of Darwin influenced your own life?
Colp: As a young man, I realized that there were certain
similarities. Like Darwin, I grew up in the shadow of a prominent
physician for a father, and was expected to follow in his footsteps
to become a surgeon. Like Darwin, I rebelled against following the
path that had been set out for me. Although I did practice surgery
for several years, I was more interested in the mind and the emotions
and became a psychiatrist.
I have grown to imitate Darwin in many ways. My daily habits of
early rising and then doing important writing first thing, for
instance, and how I organize my day around strictly timed alternating
periods of work and relaxation, of annotating and abstracting the
books that I read, and of writing my first drafts on the backs of
used sheets of paper--all of these habits I picked up from Darwin.
He kept a diary on the early emotional expressions of his
children, and I did the same when my daughters were infants. I try to
be caring and helpful to my friends, as he did. When his friend Sir
Joseph Hooker's young son fell ill, Darwin drew on his own agonizing
deathwatch of Annie to comfort him: ‘Much love much trial, but what
an utter desert is life without love.'
Richard Milner is the author of The Encyclopedia of Evolution:
Humanity's Search for Its Origins (Henry Holt, 1993) and Charles
Darwin: Evolution of a Naturalist (Facts on File, 1994). A
contributing editor to Natural History and an associate in
anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York
Was Darwin's Illness Avoidant Personality Disorder?
Darwin 's four decade invalidity is a defining characteristic of his life. He rarely ventured from his estate, and he carefully controlled visitations. This departure from English gentleman norms was excused by the indisposition of an undiagnosed illness. The fine-grained research of psychiatrist Ralph Colp, Jr suggests that he suffered from Chagas' disease, contracted on the Beagle voyage, and from a highly labile parasympathetic nervous system that accounts for the psychosomatic element of his indisposition as well as some peculiar psychological conditions. This paper builds on Colp's findings by adding a third element, the Avoidant Personality Disorder. AvDP is characterized by DSM-IV as extreme shyness, exaggerated sensitivity to rejection, strong self-deprecation, and striving for acceptance. The diagnostic deals with puzzling aspects of Darwin's behavior and opinion that Colp is unable to include in his assessment, eg, his long secrecy about his transmutationism, his exaggerated claims of priority and of discovery, his dependence on supporters, his dismay at the thought of engaging in face-to-face debate, his endless revisions of the Origin , and his misrepresentations of the history of transmutationism and of the state of the biological sciences of his time. The paper concludes with some suggestions about a new, revised ‘image' of this extraordinary man.
Hiram Caton is retired professor of politics and history, Griffith University, Brisbane Australia. He has many publications in European economic and political history (The Politics of Progress), philosophy (The Origin of Subjectivity), medical ethics (Trends in Biomedical Regulation), AIDS (The AIDS Mirage), anthropology (The Samoa Reader), crowd behavior, and psychologically oriented human ethology. Two recent articles on anthropologist Derek Freeman's Narcissistic Personality Disorder received wide public attention.