Circumnavigating Darwin

Presented at the Darwin Undisciplined Conference, March 20-21 1999, Sydney.

A paper by Dr Robert Gordon and Deborah Thomas

Few men have contributed to the understanding of mankind as much as Darwin has. His "Origin of Species" and "The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals" are landmark contributions.

A great deal has been written about his work and in my field as a psychotherapist it would be naive of me to add to the long list of arguments and counter-arguments concerning the origin of species. But "The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals" is another issue. Suffice it to say that is has been too long a forgotten contribution. It has only really been taken up and significantly valued since the 1960's when Silvan Tomkins and others interested in emotion reviewed Darwin's work. Since then many contributions have elaborated the theory. So much so, that the theory of emotion or, as it is known in psychotherapeutic circles, "affect theory", has begun to take a central stage in an understanding of man and his behaviour. It was pleasing to discover that the first keynote speaker took up this book, and expanded her ideas about it, in such an eloquent way.

My professional contribution can only come as that of a psychotherapist. I am interested in the man, the man and his environment and the man in his social context. It is in this manner that I would like to circumnavigate Darwin and try to understand something about this great man - including the illness that he suffered from, for 40 years, following his return on the "H.M.S. Beagle". What could have happened to this man to cripple and confine him to his environment at Downs for most of his adult life? What could have been the circumstances that brought about his incapacity?

Let us begin with an exploration of the environment in England at the time.

Charles Darwin was born in 1809 in the middle of the Industrial Revolution - a time of great social and political change as well as technological innovation. The steam engine had revolutionised transport and increased the mobility of the population. Mechanisation had led to massive growth of the textile industry and a booming steel production. The use of steam power, in the development of factories, led to a rapid growth of industry which, in turn, led to an increased urbanisation of the population. There was an erosion of the previously highly valued family and community structures and exploitation was rampant. New social classes were created; factory owners, and those at the forefront of the industrial revolution, gained in both money and status; the factory system, with its low pay and long working hours for the majority, was the foundation of a large new working class. The Industrial Revolution was a time of innovation and free thinking, particularly regarding matters of religion, and this threatened the spiritual and moral well being of the nation.

By the early 1800's a growing social conscience was developing amongst the more privileged members of society and a demand for better treatment by the less well off. By the 1830's labour laws were being reviewed. Child labour was abolished and more humanitarian conditions were introduced. Religious views were both questioned and strenuously defended. The creationist view dominated yet - fossil records and geological findings raised doubts in the minds of many. The developing sciences were capturing the imagination of the population, with phrenology, hydropathy, mesmerism, astrology and clairvoyance sitting alongside the more worthy scientific endeavours. Into this world of material innovation and change, concomitant with growing moral thinking, Charles Darwin was born.

The Family

Erasmus Darwin 1731-1802

Charles Darwin's grandfather, was a physician with a successful and lucrative practice. He has been described as physically unsightly - grossly overweight (22 stone) and with pock marked skin. He had a pronounced stammer and a clumsy gait. He was a glutton and often suffered from fatigue. Despite his physical appearance Erasmus was married twice to intelligent, attractive women. He had five children from his first marriage. Two died in infancy. His first wife, Mary Howard, died at the age of thirty - possibly from alcoholism and liver damage (Bowlby, 1990). Erasmus was then left with three sons - the youngest being Robert aged only four. Erasmus remained a widower for the next eleven years. In 1781 he remarried and fathered a further seven children over the next nine years. Erasmus died seven years before Charles Darwin's birth. The two were never to meet.

Robert Darwin 1766-1848

After losing his mother at such an early age Robert became deeply attached to his Aunt, Susannah, who had assumed the role of primary caregiver. Then occurred another devastating blow. Robert's eldest brother, who had followed his father into the medical profession, died at the age of nineteen after contracting blood poisoning whilst performing an operation. Robert was twelve years old. Erasmus Darwin was devastated by the loss of his eldest son and, by-passing his quiet, retiring and somewhat depressed second son, placed all his hopes with Robert. It has been suggested by Bowlby (1990) that from this time on, Robert was to suffer headaches and depression. In 1792, a year after his father re-married, Robert was sent to Edinburgh to study Medicine. Two years later he entered the medical profession. With only twenty pounds in his pocket, given to him by his father, Robert moved to Shrewsbury. There he established himself as a leading physician. It was Robert's business skills that lead to success rather than his capacities as a scientist. Robert was later to confess to his son, Charles, his early hatred for the profession of medicine. Throughout his career he remained sickened by the sight of blood.

Five years later, Robert's remaining brother, an unsuccessful lawyer, committed suicide, at the age of forty, by drowning. This left Robert as the only remaining offspring from Erasmus' first marriage. Erasmus was said to have acted rather harshly towards Robert - a manner also used to describe Robert's treatment of his son - Charles Darwin (Bowlby, 1990).

Only two years after the death of his last sibling, Robert also lost his father Erasmus. Robert was then thirty six years of age. Is it any wonder that Robert began to consider the possibility of hereditary ill-health in his family?

In 1796 Robert married Susannah Wedgwood, the eldest daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, a man whose ambition and creativity helped him to make his fortune in the pottery business. Susannah was thirty one years of age when she married Robert. She bore him six children in fourteen years with Charles being the second youngest. Susannah died at the age of fifty-two when Charles was only eight years old. Charles remembered little about his mother, partly because she was ill for some considerably time before her death, and partly because his grief stricken sisters were unable to speak of her.

Susannah suffered from frequent illnesses including nervousness, irritability, fits of depression, fainting, chills and high temperatures. She was often confined to the house and was confined to bed during her second and third pregnancies. It was during her third pregnancy, in 1802, that Robert Darwin's father, Erasmus, died. Robert entered a period of brooding withdrawal. In 1817 Susannah again, suddenly, took ill with stomach pains followed by severe vomiting. She died shortly after of peritonitis. Following Susannah's death Robert became moody and suffered chronic depression. He became sarcastic and a bully. The Darwin household was in a constant state of tension and gloom.

While he was later to dismiss his father's scientific model, Charles held his father in high regard and often spoke of him generously - sometimes defensively so in the face of those who spoke ill of him. In the early years, before the death of Susannah, it appears that Robert enjoyed the company of Charles - walking in the garden with him and taking him for rides in his carriage. It was Robert who gave Charles his first books on natural history. Charles praised his father's moral example, in spite of his own secretly maintained irreligious beliefs, and referred to him as "the kindest man I ever knew".

Charles' cousin, Emma Wedgwood, who was later to become his wife, told another tale. She spoke of a tyrannical and unsympathetic uncle who had little patience, particularly with small boys, who ruled the household in an authoritarian and demanding manner - allowing his children no monetary indulgences and instilling in them compliance and a modesty that verged on being apologetic. As a consequence of this imperious upbringing Charles was variously described as timid, docile, diffident and guileless.

Charles obvious adoration of his father is an important phenomenon to note at this point.

Charles' Siblings

Charles' eldest sister, eleven years his senior, was Marianne. It was Marianne who took over the running of the household after the death of Susannah. The second eldest Darwin child, Caroline, was entrusted with Charles' early education. Charles was to describe Caroline, who was nine years his senior, as somewhat domineering and overzealous in her attempts to educate him.

Charles had two other sisters: Susan, who was six years older, and Catherine, one year younger. His sisters, whom Charles referred to collectively as "the sisterhood" were central to his early life. Charles also had one brother, Erasmus, who was five years older. Erasmus suffered ill health from childhood - including melancholia. He was to neither marry nor develop a profession, yet Charles was devoted to his older brother. In fact, he idolised him. The two boys enjoyed each others company both personally and intellectually.

Charles Darwin 1809 - 1882

The Early Years

Charles' first memory was of "sea-bathing" near Abergle at the age of four. His memories of his mother were limited to the black velvet gown she worn on her deathbed and also what Charles described as her "curiously constructed work table".

Charles was taught at home until age eight by older sister Caroline. He was told he was much slower than his younger sister Catherine. Charles also recounts being rather a "naughty" boy.

School and University Years

In 1817, at the age of nine, Charles attended Shrewsbury day school, where he demonstrated an interest in Natural History.

From 1818 to 1825, 7 years, Charles boarded at the Grammar school there. He was taught little other than Latin and Greek, which he neither enjoyed nor showed aptitude for. Charles felt he was viewed as being very ordinary - even below average intelligence. He did, however, demonstrate an excellent memory and the ability to learn extensive passages by rote. His passion as a child was collecting minerals and insects and the observation of birds. Once his interest had been aroused, Charles attended to his hobbies with an absorbed, possibly obsessive dedication. Yet his interests were not deemed to be acceptable. The Headmaster of his school once rebuked him for, "wasting time on such useless subjects". In his later school years he enjoyed assisting his brother in conducting a range of chemical experiments - earning the nickname "Gas" from his peers. It was during time spent with his Wedgwood cousins that Charles experienced partygoing, visiting, skating, riding and the shooting and hunting for which he was to develop a passion.

In 1825, at the age of 17, Charles was sent to Edinburgh University to study Medicine. Charles left after two years, describing the lectures as dull, and citing his education as a failure. However, in his second year at the university, Charles developed new interests and with them a new circle of friends, consisting of geologists zoologists and botanists, who introduced him to Lamarckian theory. He attended meetings of the Plinian society - a society founded for the sake of sharing and discussing papers on Natural Science. Charles was also a member of the Royal Medical Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Charles lack of success regarding his education and his consequent lack of a career led his father to conceive of the plan for him to become a clergyman - a career often relegated, during Victorian times, to the misfits of society. Despite his indifference regarding religion, in 1828, at the age of nineteen, Charles commenced his studies at Cambridge University. While he found these quite boring he enjoyed being a part of the "sporting set" and those evenings spent dining, drinking, singing and playing cards. His greatest passion at Cambridge became the collecting of beetles and his greatest delight that of seeing his name next to an illustration in a book by Stevens on British insects.

Note: during the early parts of the nineteenth century the sciences were regarded as hobbies rather than being worthy of academic pursuit and tended to be relegated to the position of, and therefore somewhat furtively engaged in, extra curricular activities.

At Cambridge, having retained his childhood love of collecting, Darwin eventually met the Reverend John Henslow - a Professor of Botany knowledgeable in the areas of botany, entomology, chemistry, mineralogy and geology. In his autobiography Darwin spoke at length, and in a language replete with superlatives, about Henslow. Henslow was a deeply religious man. Darwin described his moral qualities as being "in every way admirable". He wrote:

"His judgement was excellent and his whole mind well balanced. He was free from every tinge of vanity or other petty feeling and I never saw a man who thought so little about himself or his own concerns. His temper was imperturbably good with the most winning and courteous manners. Henslow's benevolence was unbounded as he proved by his many excellent schemes for his poor parishioners". (C.Darwin)

Again I'd like you to note the presence of idealisation - similar to that which Charles displayed towards his father.

During his time at Cambridge Darwin also enjoyed the company of many of Henslow's friends. Men whom he spoke of in glorifying terms and whose company he felt privileged to access. These men helped to provide Darwin's foundation for his life as a professional Naturalist. Charles was later to write:

"Looking back, I infer that there must have been something in me a little superior to the common run of youths, otherwise the above mentioned men, so much older than me and higher in academic position would never have allowed me to associate with them." (C.Darwin)

Charles remembered his time at Cambridge as the happiest years of his life. He was almost always in good spirits and he also experienced a period of excellent health. Darwin graduated from Cambridge satisfied that a life as a cleric, a career which included an abundance of leisure time, would provide the satisfying opportunity to pursue his scientific interests.

The Voyage of the Beagle

Shortly after graduation, in 1831, at the age of 23, Darwin was recommended by one of his Professors at Cambridge University (Henslow) for a position as a naturalist on a scientific expedition to the coast of South America and the South Sea Islands. Darwin was eager to accept the position but his Father objected strongly, citing the possible dangers of ship-wreck, disease and even death. He did however add:

"If you can find any man of common sense who advises you to go, I will give my consent."

Charles initially wrote to Henslow, refusing the position of naturalist aboard H.M.S. Beagle, saying:

"Even if I was to go, my father's disliking would take away all energy and I should want a good stock of that." (C.Darwin)

Shortly afterwards Darwin's uncle, Josiah Wedgewood, was able to persuade Dr Darwin of the benefits of such a journey and Charles was thus encouraged to take up the position.

Darwin described the two months spent at Plymouth preparing for the voyage on the Beagle as the "most miserable he had ever spent" . The weather was gloomy and unpleasant and he was quite distressed by the prospect of such a long time away from his family and friends. It was at this time that Darwin first experienced palpitations and pain about the heart. Although Charles was alert to the possibility of heart disease, he elected not to consult a doctor, fearing he would receive a diagnosis which would prevent him participating in the voyage.

During the voyage itself, however, Darwin demonstrated great physical endurance. During this voyage of the Beagle, Darwin was full of energy, enthusiastic, adventurous and other than suffering from seasickness, was in exceedingly good health except for a bout of fever in Venezuela. In fact Charles was later to say:

"As far as I can judge of myself, I worked to the utmost during the voyage from the mere pleasure of investigation and from my strong desire to add a few facts to the great mass of facts in Natural Science." (C.Darwin)

Darwin spoke in glowing terms about Fitz-Roy, the Captain of the Beagle, describing him as:

"Generous to a fault, devoted to his duty, bold, determined, indomitable, energetic and an ardent friend to all under his sway." (C.Darwin)

At the same time, Darwin also recalled Fitz-Roy's unfortunate temper and described him as a man who was difficult to live with.


On October the 4th, 1836, at the age of 28, Charles returned to Shrewsbury. He visited his family before journeying to London where he sought the help of prominent scientists in the process of identifying his large collection of specimens. Only Charles Lyell was a willing helper - thus beginning an important friendship.

The two years he spend as a bachelor in London, following his return, were described by Darwin as very active, though he did report occasional periods of feeling unwell. He was absorbed by his scientific work, particularly organising the display of his specimens.

In 1837, the year after returning from the Voyage of the Beagle, Charles was to again experience the heart palpitations which he first experienced six years before, while waiting for the Beagle. Charles was working on his "Journal of Researches" at the time. This time he chose to seek medical advice and was told to take complete rest. Charles was beginning to express doubts regarding his ability to continue working. In a letter to Henslow, Charles complained about the people who were organising the printing of his work saying they were, "so savage" and they "bullied me so". He also said, "Of late, anything which flurries me completely knocks me up afterwards and brings on a violent palpitation of the heart". Over the next three years, Charles experienced periods of ill health, which he believed were caused by the pressure of his work.

Darwin's wife - Emma

After returning to London, after the Voyage of the Beagle, Charles began to seriously consider marrying his cousin Emma. He compiled a list of pros and cons.

This is the Question


  • My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one's whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, and nothing after all - Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with a really good fire, and books and music perhaps.

  • Marriage would provide home and someone to take care of house.

  • Distractions in the way of music and female chit-chat which would be good for one's health.

  • Company in old age.

Not Marry

  • Not forced to visit relatives and to bend to every trifle.

  • Loss of time.

  • Cannot read in the evenings

  • Fatness and idleness.

  • Anxiety and responsibility

  • Less money for books.

  • If wife disliked living in London I may find myself banished to the country and in danger of becoming an indolent old fool.


After deciding that the pros outweighed the cons Darwin began spending time with Emma. During this period he suffered another bout of the illness that had plagued him since his return from The Beagle.

Shortly before the wedding, Charles wrote to Emma, bemoaning his anxiety about the wedding and his wish that it would be over. He also expressed concern about whether Emma would be happy with him. He suffered a severe headache lasting two days and two nights, in the days just before the wedding, at one stage fearing that he would not recover in time.

Darwin married Emma Wedgwood, his cousin, in 1839.

Emma was the youngest in a large family. At the age of twenty-four Emma lost her beloved sister, Fanny, who died of an 'inflammatory attack' (Wedgwood, 1980). Her grief was enormous. Then the following year, Emma's mother, Bessy, suffered a serious seizure (either a stroke or a severe epileptic fit). She suffered brain damage resulting in progressive physical and mental deterioration. Emma and her older sister, Elizabeth, cared for their bedridden mother for 8 years. (Subsequent to this they nursed Charles.)

It can be noted that there were areas of conflict between the Darwins and the Wedgewoods - one area being religion: there was the devout Christianity of the Wedgwoods and the agnostic views of the Darwins. At one stage Charles was persuaded to attend a lecture on the "Connexion of Science and Religion" but he became so fatigued he was unable to give the lecture a fair hearing.

Darwin's Children

Charles and Emma were to have a total of ten children. Three of these were lost at a young age. Annie, Charles favourite child, died at the age of ten. Mary Eleanor died at only three weeks of age and Charles Waring, the last born, died at eighteen months.

Charles Darwin's Work

As you will shortly see, Darwin's capacity for work was intricately related to his health, his relationships with his colleagues and, of course, his family.

At the time of his marriage, Charles was spending more time with Lyell than any other man. Although Lyell was highly dubious of Charles' work and raised every possible objection to his ideas Charles was flattered by the interest he showed. Charles spent time with various other eminent men, including literary figures, but recounted these visits with little enthusiasm. One eminent historian said to Charles: "Why don't you give up your fiddle-faddle of geology and zoology." Still others totally scorned the fields of mathematics and scientific research.

Darwin's first publication, shortly after his marriage to Emma, was "Journal of Researches". It is interesting to note that he was to refer to this work as his "first born child". The responses where enthusiastic and generous. Around the same time, Charles began to re-experience ill health.

It was also at this time that he learned of his wife's first pregnancy. He elected to work but lost much time due to his illness. After a trip to the Wedgwood family home, in Maer, Charles described the visit as "scandalously idle" and added that "nothing is so intolerable as idleness."

On December 27th, 1839, Charles and Emma's first baby, William, was born. Three days before the birth, Charles's health deteriorated severely and he remained unable to take on serious work for the next eighteen months. It was also interesting to note that, for the first time, periodic vomiting was added to Charles' list of symptoms. Charles wrote in a letter to his cousin,

"What an awful affair confinement is. It knocked me up nearly as much as it did Emma herself." (C.Darwin)

Bowlby (1990) has suggested that Darwin may have been unconsciously linking Emma's abdominal changes with the abdominal illness that preceded his mother's death.

Early the following year Charles visited his father in Shrewsbury and wrote to Emma of feeling much better. In August, he became ill again - coinciding with the time of Emma falling pregnant with Annie who was born in March 1841. Letters confirmed Charles anxiety

"Emma expects to be confined in March .. a period I most dearly wish over" (C.Darwin)

Charles health gradually improved over the next two years. In the Spring of 1842 Emma became pregnant again. This time Charles remained relatively well throughout the pregnancy. It was during this pregnancy that Fox's wife died leaving him to care for a number of small children. Darwin was to say to Fox. "I dare say I cannot imagine how grief such as yours must be." He also added that had he never had such an experience himself! (Remember that his mother died when he was eight years old.)

In May 1842, Emma went to Maer and Shrewsbury for two months leaving Charles alone in London. During this period Charles became gloomy and tired. Once Emma was back again he quickly recovered and it was during the following four weeks that he drafted the essay that would form the foundation for his famous "Origins of Species"

Two months later, in July 1842, when Charles was aged 34, he and Emma moved with their family to Down House in Kent. Charles' father, Robert, lent him the money for the purchase - an amount of 2,200 pounds, and then endowed him the sum of 2,000 pounds per year. Nine days after moving, the third child, Mary, was born but survived only three weeks.

In the years following the move to Down, Charles' health improved and he was able to achieve a considerable amount workwise - including several publications arising from the voyage of the Beagle.

Charles' major anxiety during this period was the ill health of his father who was grossly overweight and suffered from angina. In 1847 Robert Darwin's health deteriorated significantly as he suffered from increasing heart failure. The health of Charles Darwin deteriorated in parallel with his fathers'. For four months prior to his father's death, in 1848, and for twelve months afterwards, Charles suffered severe sickness and depression. This severely disrupted his work and his social life.

Charles continued to live a life of invalidism, working only for brief periods of time, and spent many of his days resting on the sofa. His nights were often spent restlessly - his active mind exhausting him. He found it increasingly difficult to face any type of unpleasantness and became increasingly dependant on his wife Emma. (Wedgewood, 1980)

Francis Darwin, 1887, wrote about the symptoms of Charles Darwin's illness, describing stomach failure, during periods of excitement.

He experienced feelings of fullness and distortion, disrupting his sleep and sapping his strength. Darwin also described symptoms such as trembling hands and a swimming feeling in his head which he related to his nervous system. Other symptoms included catarrh, aching teeth and gums, arthritis, flatulence, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, palpitations, and persistent chronic exhaustion.

At times Charles also described his work as his chief source of enjoyment and noted that it provided him with relief from symptoms.

"The excitement from such work makes me for the time forget, or drives away, my daily discomfort." (C.Darwin)

Darwin was also able to describe his ill health as saving him from the "distractions of society and amusement."

In 1849, on the recommendation of his friend Fox, Charles began hydropathic treatment at Malvern. This treatment involved a daily routine which began early in the morning with being scrubbed in cold water followed by a twenty minute walk. A cold compress was strapped to the body throughout the day and changed every two hours. At midday the feet were soaked in cold water for ten minutes followed by another twenty minute walk. Dietary restrictions did not allow for sugar, butter, spices, tea or bacon. Under this treatment Darwin improved considerable - gaining weight, sleeping better and obtaining relief from some of the neurological symptoms. He even declared himself cured after three months of treatment. His depression lifted and he was able to resume a limited work schedule.

In 1851 Charles and Emma's eldest daughter, Annie, became ill. Charles decided to take her to Malvern for treatment. 3 weeks later, having returning to London, he was summoned to return with the news that Annie was seriously ill. Upon hearing that Annie was unlikely to survive another night, Charles was so distraught that he flung himself on the sofa with grief. Emma, seven months pregnant with her ninth child, was unable to be with her husband and daughter during this time. Five days later Annie died at the age of ten. Charles was grief stricken.

"My fear is hereditary ill-health. Even death is better for them." (C.Darwin)

With regard to Annie, he was to write:

"She inherits, I fear with grief, my wretched digestion" and

"Her case seems to me like an exaggerated one of my Maer illness". (C.Darwin)

Further work

In 1853 Darwin began corresponding with Wallace who was developing theories on evolution similar to those of his own. They exchanged ideas, each helping the other where possible.

In 1854 Darwin discontinued the "health" diary which had been a daily ritual for many years.

Although Darwin had written an outline of his species theory back in 1842 it was not until 1856 that his theory really crystallised in his mind and he began, on the advice of Lyell, to write the Origin of Species.

In June and July of 1856 Darwin wrote several letters to colleagues that were laden with self criticism. To Fox, a cousin, he wrote:

"My work will be horribly imperfect and with many mistakes so that I groan and tremble when I think of it." (C.Darwin)

In another letter to Hooker he wrote

"What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horribly cruel works of nature." (C.Darwin)

Darwin also wrote a letter to Asa Gray, a leading American Botanist, whose ideas, he had been assured, were similar to his own. In explaining his theory and his conclusions, he wrote:

"I know this will make you despise me .." (C.Darwin)

When Gray wrote back expressing interest in Darwin's ideas and querying his notion of being despised, Darwin was to respond by saying

"But I did not feel in the least sure that when you knew whither I was tending you might not think me so wild and foolish in my views .. that you would think me worth no more notice or assistance." (C.Darwin)

He then added

"I always expect my views to be received with contempt." (C.Darwin)

The above letters were written during Emma's tenth pregnancy. Emma and Charles' ninth child was now five years old and Emma had much difficulty with this pregnancy - suffering from headaches. In December 1856, Charles Waring was born. He was retarded - possibly suffering Down's Syndrome. (Bowlby 1990).

Also at this time Etty, nearly fourteen, became unwell and a few months later so did Leonard (seven). While Leonard was to recover Etty remained ill for many years causing both Charles and Emma much anxiety. Etty was later to write about the regular illnesses experienced by Darwin's children and of the care and compassion heaped on them by both parents.

During the first couple of years that Darwin spent working on his book, "Origin of Species", his health was variable but by 1858 the magnitude of this project may have begun to take its toll. In his records he wrote:

" I have so much to do and so precious little strength to do it."

" My health has been lately very bad from overwork."

" My work is everlasting." (C.Darwin)

In June 1858 Etty contracted scarlet fever. When she was over the worst, the youngest child, Charles Waring, also contracted scarlet fever and died. This experience was harrowing for both Charles and Emma, with Charles' health deteriorating dramatically.

It was also during the same month that Alfed Russell Wallace sent Darwin his new manuscript entitled "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type." In this paper Wallace proposed a radical theory of evolution which was identical to Darwin's own. The conflict faced by Darwin was enormous. His 1844 unpublished essay showed he had developed his ideas, not only independently of Wallace, but indeed many years earlier and, as Darwin remarked to Lyell:

"All my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed." (C.Darwin)

Honourably, Darwin acknowledged the value of Wallace's work, and that it deserved to be published. He consulted with Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker who deemed the solution to his dilemma to be the simultaneous publication of both Wallace's essay and an extract from Darwin's earlier essay. Darwin was initially unwilling. He feared an unfavourable reaction from Wallace and also described his extract as poorly written in comparison to Wallaces' "clear and admirably written" essay. His publication did go ahead but received little public attention. (What there was tended to be critical.)

Wallace was prepared to defer to Darwin's dominance in this area, but Darwin was always to refer to "our theory" in his future correspondence with him. The two were to become, and remain, firm friends.

Now Darwin felt a greater sense of urgency to expand on his ideas and to provide supporting evidence. Under pressure from Lyell and Hooker he continued his work on the Origin of Species though his work was often disrupted by ill-health.

After finishing his book Charles again became ill and after its publication in November 1859, and a series of reviews, Charles once again became ill. At this time he suffered elephantitis of one leg, swollen eyes and was covered with boils and a rash.

In the mixed reception to his work, from his circle of friends, Charles Lyell and Hooker offered support and constructive criticism. Sedgwick, in a letter, was scathing - dismissing Darwin's theory as ridiculous and dangerous:

"I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly, parts I laughed at till my sided were almost sore: other parts I read with absolute sorrow, because I think them utterly false and grievously mischievous."

Lyell, though long supporting Darwin's work privately, refused for some years ( in fact until 1869 )to publicly subscribe to his new theory. Popular opinion became polarised and controversy raged. Scathing critiques, some from eminent scientists, were produced - including one description of his work as "The law of higgledy piggledy". These were devastating for Darwin. Others were openly enthusiastic. Thomas Huxley praised the high quality of scientific argument. Joseph Hooker remained a tower of strength during this difficult time.

In his autobiography Darwin referred to the advice of Lyell, many years earlier, not to get involved in controversy. He coped with contemptuous criticism by telling himself hundreds of times over:

"I have worked as hard and as well as I could and no man can do more than this." (C.Darwin)

Huxley was later to describe Darwin as being acutely sensitive to both praise and blame.

In August 1862 his son Leonard, and then Emma, contracted scarlet fever. Bowlby (1990) has described Darwin as sick with terror at the time of his wife's illness.

In 1863, in the early part of the year, Darwin made considerable progress on his volume entitled "Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication". Yet by mid year he was again extremely ill with severe vomiting for days on end. Darwin's work was totally disrupted for thirteen months. Bowlby (1990) suggested this relapse may have been due to Darwin's bitter disappointment regarding Lyell's continued lack of public support.

In the following year, 1864, Darwin became fascinated by climbing plants and was soon involved in experimentation leading to an article on the subject being published by the Linneas Society Journal. Once completed Darwin returned to his work on "The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication" but after several months fell ill again.

In November 1864 Darwin was awarded the Copley Medal - the highest honour conferred by the Royal Society. After the ceremony Charles Lyell, amongst others, wrote to Darwin in support of his work.

By 1865 Darwin's seven remaining children were in reasonably good health and beginning to make lives of their own but Darwin's ability to work remained limited and his depression was obvious.

In May 1865 Captain Robert Fitz-Roy, with whom Darwin had circumnavigated the world in the 'Beagle', died. Darwin's health crumbled. He did no work from May to December.

In September 1865 Darwin consulted yet another leading London physician, Dr Henry Bence Jones, who prescribed diet and exercise (riding). By December Darwin was able to resume his work on 'Variation'.

In 1866 Darwin's health was maintained despite the deaths of his sisters Catherine and Susan. Darwin completed his work on 'Variation' - a six year project. Interestingly Charles almost always referred to the time spent on each publication in terms of 'cost'. For example

"In 1862, the Fertilization of Orchids, which cost me ten months work was published." (C.Darwin)

Between 1868 and 1872 Darwin produced a number of publications including two of his most important works - "The Descent of Man" and "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals."

In September 1873 Darwin suffered a "cerebral anoxia" - a shortage of oxygen supply to the brain. Fortunately he recovered quickly.

The final ten years of Darwin's life saw him in better health and considerably happier. According to his son Francis he "suffered less stress and discomfort and was able to work more steadily". During this period he was to write and publish another five books on plant physiology and one on earthworms. He also wrote his autobiography.

Darwin received many honours during his life. In his final years, in addition to the Copley Medal of the Royal Society, he was bestowed with honorary memberships to numerous prestigious scientific societies around the world. In Britain he was awarded the Baly Medal by the Royal College of Physicians and an honorary degree from Cambridge University.

Darwin showed signs of failing health in the form of angina attacks, exhaustion and faintness during the nine months prior to his death. Darwin also suffered from a deep depression during this time. Yet he continued to work until the day he died - April, 19, 1882. He was aged 73.

When he died Darwin was conferred the honour of a burial in Westminster Abbey.

Darwin's medical condition and possible diagnoses

A paper written by Hubble in 1943 identified many signs of psychoneuroses in the writings of both Darwin and his children. Darwin, for example, was acutely sensitive to the sight of blood and he worried about the future of his children - expressing concerns for their health. Darwin also reported a loss of interest in poetry and music and the works of Milton and Shakespeare, all of which he had previously enjoyed. Darwin himself questioned why only that part of his brain associated with "higher tastes" should have been affected.

Hubble identified five major reasons for suggesting that Darwin's illness was neurotically based:

  1. The symptoms were associated with unpleasant emotions.

  2. The symptoms were relieved by the pleasure and excitement related to his work.

  3. Darwin himself recognised that the illness enabled him to avoid difficult situations.

  4. No physical basis for the illness was ever discovered.

  5. Darwin lived to a good age.

Hubble looked to several sources for the origin of this neurosis. The family history of Darwin indicated some evidence of "inherited ill health of a nervous sort". One of Charles' uncles (his father's brother) committed suicide at the age of 40 and another uncle, and also his grandfather, suffered from severe stammers. Charles also had an older brother, Erasmus, who lived the life of an invalid from childhood until his death at the age of 77. Charles suffered severe facial eczema during childhood and adolescence.

Hubble looked also to the death of his mother when he was only eight years old, and also to Charles reverent relationship with his father, as possible contributing factors to his neurosis. Charles described his father as "the wisest man I ever knew", "the kindest man I ever knew" and "the largest man I ever saw". To attribute such superlatives to his father, yet have to endure the knowledge that he himself had been a disappointment to him, must have been distressing to say the least.

In addition to Hubbble's diagnosis of neurosis, a variety of hypothesis have been made regarding Darwin's health. For example

  • Panic Disorder (Barloon & Noyes, 1997; Suplee, 1997)

  • Agoraphobia (Barloon & Noyes, 1997)

  • Chagas Disease - believed to be the result of an attack by a soft wingless, blood sucking insect, known as the "great black bug of the Pampas", while Darwin was in South America. The insect, "Triatoma Infestans" is now known to be the principal vector for Trypansoma Cruzi, the causative agent of Chagas Disease. (Douglas, 1990; Salwen, 1989; Adler, JAMA letters, 1997)

  • Bipolar Disorder (Psychiatric News, 1997)

  • Meniere Disease (Gordon, JAMA letters, 1997)

  • Hypochondriasis (acquaintances of Charles')

  • Dyspepsia and gout (Francis Darwin, son, cited in Douglas, 1990)

  • Chronic Neurasthenia (Johnston, 1901, cited in Douglas, 1990) - said to be caused by "continued overstrain of exhausting nerve cells"

  • Brucellosis (Simpson in Douglas, page 3)

  • Chronic arsenic poisoning (Winslow, 1971, cited in Douglas, page 4)

  • "An anxiety state with obsessive features and psychosomatic manifestation" (Woodruff in Douglas, page 5)

Changing Theories of Darwin's illness

From 1831 to 1836 Charles Darwin explored South America and several Pacific Islands as a naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. He suffered from sea sickness but was healthy and energetic on land. It was soon after his return to England that his health broke. By 1842, at age 33, he was living in seclusion in the English countryside. He was so easily exhausted that he could work for only a few hours each day and manage only short walks .. so ill he that could barely cope with visits from friends.

"My health always suffered from excitement, violent shivering and vomiting attacks being thus brought on". (C.Darwin)

"Many of my friends, I believe, think me a hypochondriac". (C.Darwin)

Peter Medawar (1967) suggested that Darwin's inability to find a physical cause for his disease was:

"Surely a great embarrassment for a man whose whole intellectual life was a marshalling and assay of hard evidence".

The precise cause of Darwin's illness remains a mystery but the best evidence now available suggests that it was caused by the psychological stress of advocating his theory of evolution.

Physician William W. Johnston made the first argument for psychological origin, other than hypochondria, in 1901, nearly two decades after Darwin's death. Using evidence in Francis Darwin's "Life and Letters of Charles Darwin", Johnson demonstrated that the illness grew more severe when Darwin worked on his theory of evolution and it subsided when he did other things.

Dr Edward Kempf (1918) suggested that Darwin suffered from an anxiety neurosis caused by his complete submission to his father. Kempf believed that this submission prevented Darwin from expressing anger, first towards his father and then towards others. Darwin, according to Kempf, feared "being offensive, ungrateful and unappreciative" and so he became, on the surface, "hyper-appreciative" and extraordinarily kind. Anger, however, was a "repressed emotional impulse that he had to be incessantly on guard against and which perhaps contributed to wearying him into invalidism".

In 1954 Dr Rankine Good published an influential explanation of Darwin's psychology, apparently based on the same sources used by Kempf. Good believed that Darwin felt "aggression, hate and resentment .. at an unconscious level" for his father. By reaction formation however his conscious feeling was a "reverence for his father which was boundless and most touching".

Others have cited Brucellosis, chronic arsenic poisoning and Chaga's disease. It was on March 26th, 1825 that he described being bitten by the Benchuca (Triatoma Infestans), the vector of Trypanosoma Cruzi, which can at times cause a disease called Chaga's. The aetiology of Chaga's disease involves damage to the peripheral autonomic nervous system, producing a disorganised gastrointestinal tract. It is this disease that was originally thought to be the cause of Darwin's chronic invalidism after his return from the voyage. This theory was also later dismissed.

It is important to note that many of Darwin symptoms (palpitations, undue fatigue, trembling fingers, pain around the heart) appeared before Darwin sailed on the Beagle and that when they recurred after his return, they were associated, not with physical strain (as would have been expected with Chagas's disease) but with mental stress. It is also of interest to point out that no other man of the Beagle crew suffered from Chaga's symptoms.

Dr Ralph Colp, a physician and psychiatrist, studied Darwin's "Diary of Health" and states that his letters and other relevant documents thoroughly point out that Darwin's disease was intermittent.

In his book, "To be a Invalid", 1977, Dr Colp carefully correlated fluctuations in Darwins health with records of Darwin's activities confirming what William W. Johnson noted in 1981: that work on the theory of evolution made the illness worse, and practically any relief from work made it better. It was not merely the strain of mental work that brought on bouts of illness. Darwin's health flourished while he wrote a different book, on a non-evolutionary topic, but suffered as the Origin of Species neared completion. Colp, though, was cautious about forming a conclusion.

"I believe that the evidence shows that Darwin's feelings about his evolutionary theory were a major cause of his illness."

These included:

  1. His awareness that his theories offended some of his few friends.

  2. His knowledge that other friends, who were eminent scientists, doubted some of his conclusions.

  3. His awareness that time spent in society was time taken away from his great work.

  4. An "obsessional" concern with problems in the theory that he could not solve.

Colp acknowledged, however, that Darwin did have "a neurotic side". He concluded by saying that Darwin sometimes felt "an excessive and inappropriate anxiety" and he was "tortured by obsessional thoughts" many of them related to his work. Colp's book is clearly the most complete study of Darwin's illness ever published and his conclusions seems difficult to refute. The consensus opinion among experts today seems to be that psychological illness could and did reduce the once vigorous Darwin to semi invalidism or at least contributed to his suffering.

Ronald W. Clark (1984), in a recent book and biography, proposed a more straightforward and more likely psychological cause. Darwin's wife Emma was deeply religious and Darwin feared that his scientific work might "destroy the belief and with it, a part of her life". He also must have sensed that his theory would do damage to the "confident world" of the Victorians. Thus Clark concluded:

"It is possible to avoid the larger lunacies of psychoanalysis and yet believe that Darwin's illness may have been at least in part the result of mental conflict created by his work."

In the process of giving his now accepted conclusions Colp commented that "maturity and neurosis can coexist in the same person". In the context of the history of the controversy over Darwin's illness, this sentence appears especially significant. It appears that in Darwin's own time psychological disease was considered not disease at all but mere hypochondria. In the twentieth century, psychiatrists and psychologists have gradually established the reality of psychological illness. Though we can see, in many of Darwin's defenders during the 1950s and 1960s, a tendency to treat psychologically caused illness as though it was some sort of defect in the character of the sufferer, this view seems to be losing ground. Most seem willing to acknowledge that psychological illness can coexist not only with maturity but also for the greatness like Darwin's.

"Even ill health, although it has annihilated several years of my life, has saved me from the distraction of society and its amusement" (C.Darwin).

The Self Psychological Point of View

In the form of psychotherapy that I practise, the major tenets of the theoretical model of self psychology have three fundamental pillars:

1. The subjective experience of the individual is paramount and the therapist's aim is to understand and to reflect on that experience.

2. Our capacity to self-sooth is reliant on our experiences of early childhood with the primary caregiver, usually our mother, to help us modulate our emotions, to contain them, to have them available as valid components of experience. Also it is important that these emotions are shared and validated via our primary caregivers.

3. Belonging is a fundamental necessity of human experience. With it we have a sense of self-esteem, integrity and a sense of safety. Without it we are vulnerable to the stresses and strains of daily life with the ever-present emotions of anxiety and vulnerability.

What can one say about Charles in these dimensions? Let's first look at his childhood environment. Remember that this was the Victorian era, as well as the middle of the industrial revolution - a time of contrast between the highly moral, church orientated, stiff upper lip way of life, and a time for capitalism, invention and expansion of thought. Charles was born into a seemingly privileged home in terms of financial and material wealth. Yet in terms of satisfying the psychological needs of a growing child this environment may have been severely lacking. The loss of his mother at the very young age of eight would have been extremely difficult for Charles. Remember that the death of Susannah occurred after a long and chronic illness suggesting that her availability to Charles during his early years would have been limited.

Furthermore, it is known that children who lose their mothers at a young age are prone to anxiety and depression. So who cared for Charles? We know he had a nursemaid who looked after his basic needs, though it appears to have been his sisters who undertook much of the responsibility for caring for him. Caroline, who had been involved in Charles upbringing from early on, took over his education in earnest once their mother had died. Yet Caroline was only nine years older than Charles - still a child herself when she assumed this responsibility. Let us look at what this environment may have meant in terms of the three fundamental pillars mentioned earlier.

A. Mirroring (The Subjective Experience)

In order for a child to develop a healthy sense of self, his or her inner world requires recognition and self-confirmation from others.

The failure to respond to the emotional states of the child or to name and validate feelings, let alone the failure to modulate them, leaves the child with a dis-ease about them. The child learns that experience must not be felt so much as understood, in all its shades of meaning, meticulously and perfectly and obsessionally. Ambivalence and indecision are a major part of these difficulties and can lead to a wretched and miserable existence often fraught with depression and sometimes suicidal ideation.

Mirroring responses come primarily, usually, from the adults in a child's life. Other children are notoriously poor at mirroring. It is likely, when we consider his mother's ill health, as well as the fact that Charles was the fifth child in a large family, that the availability of adequate mirroring experiences was less than satisfactory for Charles.

Where was Charles' father, Robert Darwin, situated in this picture? Let's first look at Robert's own childhood. He was the fourth out of five children. In addition to losing his mother, Robert's eldest brother, the apple of his father's eye, died at the age of nineteen from septicaemia. Two more siblings died in infancy and the only remaining sibling, an older brother, committed suicide ten years before Charles was born. One can barely imagine the effect this must have had on Robert - the only remaining offspring of his father's first marriage. Given this context, with the additional factor of a demanding and overbearing father, Erasmus, it is not difficult to understand the narcissistic nature of Robert Darwin - yet another family member who could not be emotionally available to the young Charles.

What would be the consequences of such an environment?

Attention Seeking Behaviour

Lack of mirroring sets up a longing for attention, a need which may have manifested in Charles' boyhood tall tales, his perfectionistic and obsessive attention to detail in his work and perhaps also in his illness. One must consider Charles' early years, when a somewhat neglected boy observed his sick mother and sick brother undoubtedly receive a lot of attention. It is also interesting that Charles was later to choose as his wife a woman who, at the time of their courtship, was caring for her ill mother.

Reverse Mirroring

There is often a tendency in one who experiences a lack of mirroring to shift towards intensely mirroring the other person and meeting their mirroring needs. Unable to obtain the mirroring they need they set about giving to others that which they most want for themselves. According to his children Charles was to become an extremely attentive father: caring, supportive and perhaps overly protective. Others who knew Charles also saw him as a warm hearted, generous and forgiving man.


It is clear from the record of Charles' correspondence and his own autobiography, that his ongoing experience was one of far more criticism than praise. Not only did Darwin experience failure in his ability to live up to the expectations of his father, but throughout his life, his work was constantly devalued by his father, his schoolmasters and later by critics and people Charles admired - such as leading literary figures and even other scientists. Such an onslaught of criticism throughout his life must surely have impacted Charles' experience of self-worth and self-confidence.

Charles also experienced shame at his inability to save his daughter, Annie's, life and at not being able to provide financially for his children's future. He felt an intense sense of responsibility and perhaps failure at the extent of his own children's ill health which, as befitting his own evolutionary theory, he felt he had passed on to them. Darwin's son, Francis, even described his father as experiencing intense shame over his desire for attention - berating himself for the pleasure he took in the success of his books.

The obsessive nature of Charles Darwin is obvious from both his incredibly meticulous record keeping and also from his rigid and precise daily schedule as recalled by his son, Francis (1887). Miller (1996), suggested that shame is the underlying experience in the development of obsessive personalities. Pierre Janet (cited in Miller, 1996) described such individuals as:

"Rigid, inflexible, lacking in adaptability, overly conscientious, loving order and discipline and persistent even in the face of undue obstacles. They are generally dependable and reliable and have high standards and ethical values. They are practical, precise and scrupulous in their moral requirements. Under conditions of stress or extreme demands, these personality characteristics may congeal into symptomatic behaviour that will then be ritualized."

Could Janet be talking about Charles Darwin?

B. Idealising (Self soothing)

In addition to mirroring, the developing child requires the availability of an external soothing and strengthening source. The ability to self-sooth feelings is a fundamental prerequisite of ongoing human experience. Without it the expression of emotion will feel overwhelming, and the individual will make every attempt to distance feeling from experience. When it does arise, it feels beyond control, and panic and shame are not infrequent expressions of the underlying disruption in self state. It is also now known that fragmentation of the self can and does arise in these conditions and a common expression of this fragmentation is psychosomatic symptomatology, usually gastrointestinal, cardiac, respiratory or skin manifestations.

This ability to self-sooth is transmitted through the primary caregiver's ability to contain the infant's anxious state and modulate it into a manageable experience. This self soothing capacity is inculcated into the baby within the first two years of life. The caregiver must have time for, be sensitive to, and sympathise with the baby's emotional state. Failure to develop such a self-soothing capacity of one's own results in a constant seeking of support and strength from outside sources.

Again we see that for Charles these important requirements of his early years may not have been adequately met, resulting in marked limitations in the ability to self-soothe and in the development of self-esteem and capacity for self-assertiveness. Consider Charles' blinkered adoration of his father and numerous other male figures whom he actively sought out during his life. Such a view is typical of the individual whose early idealising needs remained unfulfilled. Charles repeatedly turned to these 'larger than life' figures for advice, for encouragement and strength at times when he felt the most vulnerable, suffering from perceived failure or disappointment. It should be considered that Darwin's major work, "The Origin of Species", may never had reached completion had it not been for the ongoing and persistent encouragement and support of his friends Lyell and Hooker.

Charles also idealised his wife Emma. It is noticeable that at each of the most stressful periods of his life, Charles became physically ill, requiring the love and attention of his adoring, perhaps even smothering, wife. In particular, some of the most severe periods of illness followed the loss of those people most important to him - almost as though a part of him died as a result of each of these experiences - the strength which he had been unable to fully internalise and on which he remained externally dependent. For example, the illness and subsequent death of Robert Darwin was paralleled by the increasing severity of Charles' illness. Remember that Charles had relied on his father, for his entire life, for financial support. He had never been able to generate enough income to be self-reliant. Consider also the illnesses which coincided with his wife's first two pregnancies. Would the anticipated presence of a needy infant have triggered a subconscious fear of losing some of his precious wife's attention, the mirroring for which his need was so great? It is interesting also that Charles became ill during the tenth pregnancy - one which came after a five year gap, just when all the other children had reached an age where some level of independence was possible.

The combination of lack of mirroring and inadequate idealising opportunities during early childhood may also lead to disavowel of the true self - that which remains unrecognised or even rejected by others and which is unable to attain an adequate level of self-esteem to enable self-assertive and goal directed behaviour. Such disownership can lead to the development of a "false self" - an "ideal" fantasy of who they would like to be. Such disavowal, if incomplete, can lead to an "endless back and forth between pursuit of a perfected robotic self and assertion of a more feeling centred self" (Susan Miller, 1996).

Thus we come to the previously mentioned obsessive personality - one which holds strict control over the emotions and which, in the case of Charles Darwin, pursued intellectual excellence at a level which may have been unsustainable.

C. Twinship (Belonging)

Another important component of self structure is that of a sense of belonging. To bring about this experience the child must feel themselves to be an active participant in the family - with permission to express their feelings and views in a setting of acceptance and consideration. It would be hard to believe that Darwin's family constellation permitted this freedom of expression when one considers his father's personality and what appears to be the dominating nature of his sisters. Failure to establish a sense of belonging leaves an individual always anxious to please, fearful of authority figures (often treating them as omnipotent and beyond reproach) and unable to express anger in their presence. Idealisation is a very common aspect of such individual's behaviour and they often feel they exist 'on the outer' no matter what they do.

Consider again Charles' early years. Those family members with whom we would expect him to share a sense of belonging were clearly inadequately available. His father was distant and critical and his older brother was often ill. Charles' sisters whom he referred to as the 'sisterhood' clearly formed a collective from which he, as a boy, was excluded. Charles was an outsider. He spent large amounts of time on his own, unable to fit in with the standard requirements of school or university study and eventually forging an occupation which marginalised him even further. Yet his neediness is obvious. It was during his time at Cambridge University that he was to experience one of the happiest and healthiest periods of his life. Here he found like-minded people: firstly his peers with whom he shared his love of music, dining and sporting activities, and later Henslow who befriended him and acted as a mentor, encouraging Charles to develop his scientific interests.

Consider Charles' increased isolation over the years. It could be suggested that his neediness was too overwhelming for him to bear, leading him to rationalise his isolated lifestyle - he was protecting himself from his need to mix with others.

A feeling of not belonging can further exacerbate the need to develop a false self - a self which will find a place to belong, a self which corresponds to what others accept as belonging, a self which is 'like' others. Let me suggest that intellectual excellence may have been a part of Darwin's 'ideal' self rather than his 'true' self. It is interesting that in his later years, once he had proved himself and been accepted for his intellectual capacities, Darwin ignored his work on evolution to concentrate on plant physiology and earthworms - a much more comfortable realm for him.

Thus it would appear that Charles' early childhood experiences may have had a significant impact, not only in terms of his later illness but also in the development of the obsessive nature which perhaps, rather than inherent genius, may have led to the production of some of the most important scientific works ever produced.

I leave you with some questions to consider

1. Had Charles Darwin not been neglected as a child, would he have had the same passion to achieve, to please others and seek out those whom he saw as 'perfect' which ultimately fuelled his supremely thorough, meticulous and precise work which culminated in "The Origin of Species"?

2. On the other hand, had it not been for the debilitating and massively time consuming illness from which Charles Darwin suffered for so much of his life, to what heights of success might this man have soared?


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Circumnavigating Darwin © 1999 - 2004. Dr Robert Gordon and Deborah Thomas.