Posted by: Didapper PJ18 NOV 2009
You probably think you have read more than enough about Charles Darwin during his bicentenary year, but you are not getting away that easily because next Tuesday, 24 November (2009), is the sesquicentenary of the publication of his most famous book, ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life’.
The book is a masterpiece not just as a landmark work in evolutionary biology but because of the way Darwin made his theory easy for the non-specialist reader and answered the possible counter-arguments before they could be raised.
So popular was the book that a second edition appeared within seven weeks. (By the sixth edition, in 1872, Darwin had realised that his title was rather cumbersome and shortened it by dropping the “On”.)
While preparing ‘The origin of species’, Darwin was often unable to work because of a mysterious debilitating illness that plagued him for most of his adult life. His problems had begun in 1831 when he suffered chest pains and palpitations while waiting anxiously for the Beagle to set sail.
Later bouts of these symptoms were also often associated with stressful events and he was to recognise in his own writings that his illness was brought on by “excitement”.
The symptoms of Darwin’s intermittent illness included general malaise, severe tiredness, nervous exhaustion, insomnia, anxiety, depression, muscle spasms, tremors, vomiting, stomach cramps, bloating, colic, flatulence, headaches, disturbances of vision, vertigo, tinnitus, shortness of breath, tachycardia, fainting and skin problems such as eczema and multiple blisters on the scalp.
The unusual range of symptoms may indicate a combination of organic and psychological problems. Suggested causes have included psychomatic disease, hypochondria, panic disorder, Chagas’ disease (possibly contracted in Argentina in 1833), lupus erythematosus, arsenic poisoning, lactose intolerance, multiple allergies, Ménière’s disease and cyclic vomiting syndrome.
The exact nature of Darwin’s illness will remain a mystery unless his remains can be examined using modern molecular biology techniques such as polymerase chain reaction tests. But Westminster Abbey has refused to allow his grave to be disturbed, so we may never know.