How Did Charles Darwin’s Poor Health and Anxiety Affect His Scientific Work?

Charles Darwin is well known for the five-year voyage aboard the Beagle that he took to the Galápagos Islands as a young man, and his later contributions to the science of evolution. He explained his revolutionary theory, including a process he called natural selection, in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. But what is less well known is that Darwin lived a very reclusive life after returning to England from the Beagle voyage. Some scholars have suggested that he was wracked with a severe panic disorder that manifested itself in a variety of puzzling symptoms, including heart palpitations, shortness of breath, feelings of impending doom, hysterical crying, and severe nausea and vomiting. In a cruel twist of fate, the quiet, isolated lifestyle necessitated by his medical problems undoubtedly gave him time to formulate his groundbreaking theory of evolution. Darwin himself described this situation, writing in 1876 that "ill-health, though it has annihilated several years of my life, has saved me from the distractions of society and amusement."

Charles Darwin's puzzling condition:

  • Over the years, researchers have speculated about Darwin’s plight. In 1997, University of Iowa physicians -- one a psychiatrist, the other a radiologist -- pored over his letters, books, and diaries and concluded that it added up to panic disorder.
  • Darwin was a worrier, author Claudia Kalb wrote in a 2016 book. “He fretted about his children, about his work, about his deadlines, about his reputation and, almost always, about what ailed him.”
  • Darwin’s mother frequently suffered from headaches and intestinal distress, and died from an abdominal infection when her son was eight years old. Studies have shown that the loss of a parent early in life can increase the risks of depression and anxiety later in life.
More Info: Science magazine

Discussion Comments

anon1000872

I always thought he was a boy that needed to get out more. Remember, it's only a theory. He never claimed it wasn't.

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