Tag Archives: darwin’s illness

Darwin's uncontrollable farting

I have just emailed the following to the London Review of Books, in response to their recent piece entitled Gutted:

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.

Richard Carter
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.)

Shock treatment

Charles Darwin tired all sorts of quack treatments for his mysterious illness—most famously, hydropathy (or hydrotherapy as we refer to it nowadays). But, for a short while before he fell for the hydropathy craze, Darwin dabbled briefly with a more hi-tech treatment: galvanisation. In a letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker, he confessed:

You ask about my health: I have been unusually well for a week past, owing, I believe, to what sounds a great piece of quackery, viz twice a day passing a galvanic stream through my insides from a small-plate battery for half an hour.— I think it certainly has relieved some of my distressing symptoms

Darwin knew quackery when he smelt it, but he did not have the modern explanation of the placebo effect to fall back on to explain its apparent success.

See also: Darwin in Ilkley

Such modest ambitions, Mr Darwin!

In 1841, Charles Darwin, not yet five years home from his famous voyage aboard HMS Beagle, was a poorly man. His father was a highly respected doctor, so Darwin paid him a visit for a consultation. From his father's house in Shrewsbury, he wrote to his friend Charles Lyell:

My health has improved a good deal, since I have been in the country, & I believe to a stranger's eyes, I should look quite a strong man, but I find I am not up to any exertion, & I am constantly tiring myself by very trifling things.

So convinced was Darwin that the countryside was beneficial to his health that, the following year, he moved to Down House in the Kent countryside. He was to remain there for the rest of his life.

Darwin's ill-health evidently left him with low expectations of his future ability to contribute to science. His letter to Lyell continues:

My Fathers [sic] scarcely seems to expect, that I shall become strong for some years—it has been a bitter mortification for me, to digest the conclusion, that the "race is for the strong"—& that I shall probably do little more, but must be content to admire the strides others make in Science— So it must be, but I shall just crawl on with my S. American work & be as easy as I can.—

Charles Darwin: surely the most modest and unassuming genius in the history of science.