Steven Shapin writes that Darwin's uncontrollable retching and farting seriously limited his public life (LRB, 30 June).
Some years ago, to my delight, I worked out that the great man's full name, Charles Robert Darwin, is an anagram of 'rectal winds abhorrer'.
Unfortunately for my anagram, the meanings of words, like species, can evolve. On the rare occasions that Darwin mentioned his gaseous problems to friends, he always used the word 'flatulence'. Nowadays, we think of flatulence as being synonymous with farting, but, in Darwin's day, it simply meant (as it technically still does) an accumulation of gases in the alimentary canal.
While I'm sure that Darwin, like the rest of us, must have vented his excess gas one way or the other, there is no reason to believe that his farts were uncontrollable.
The Friends of Charles Darwin
(As a postscript, I should perhaps add that, although Darwin's nickname at school was Gas, this had nothing to do with his alimentary system, and everything to do with his passion for manufacturing gases in his amateur chemical laboratory at home.)
(As a second postscript, I should add that the LRB published the above letter in their 28-Jul-2011 edition.)