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Was Charles Darwin a reluctant homoeopath?

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By the end of 2009, his bicentenary year, much will have been written about Charles Darwin. But I have yet to see mention of his brush with less conventional forms of medicine.

For much of his life Darwin was plagued by mysterious illness. Symptoms included nausea and vomiting, heart palpitations, boils, trembling, fainting and spots before the eyes. By March 1849 he was unable to work one day out of every three and felt he was dying. On the advice of shipmates, he visited the homoeopathic clinic and water-cure spa of Dr James Gully.

His scepticism can be gauged from a letter in which he states: “Dr Gully gives me homoeopathic medicines three times a day, which I take obediently, without an atom of faith.”

However, within a month his symptoms had improved so dramatically that he was able to walk seven miles a day. Darwin returned to the clinic several times over the next decade when his symptoms returned.

In later years Darwin himself experimented with homoeopathic doses of ammonium salts upon the insectivorous sundew plant (Drosera rotundifolia). He discovered that however much he reduced the dose, prepared according to the homoeopathic method of dilution and succussion (he did not realise that the doses were so dilute they no longer contained any molecules), the effects were still visible in the plant, causing its “tentacles” to turn inward.

Although Darwin provided details about the exceedingly small doses he tested, he never used the word “homoeopathic” when referring to these experiments. He wrote: “I am quite unhappy at the thought of having to publish such a statement.”

An endorsement of homoeopathy by Darwin at that time might have led to even greater antagonism against his theories about life and evolution.

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