What killed Charles Darwin?

Charles Darwin may have paid dearly for his legendary voyage on the HMS Beagle. He sacrificed his health. Darwin experienced abdominal pain, waves of violent vomiting and skin eruptions in his life after the voyage. What caused his great discomfort has been a topic of discussion in medical circles for more than 100 years, but a modern diagnostician thinks he has the answer. The University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and the Veterans Administration Maryland Health Care System hold a Historical Clinicopathological Conference each year that employs modern diagnostic knowledge in an attempt to unravel disorders of the famous deceased. Darwin was the focus of attention of this years conference, held at the tail end of last week.

Sidney Cohen, director of research at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and an attendee at the event, says Darwin may have suffered from three ailments: cyclic vomiting syndrome, Chagas disease, and Helicobacter pylori, or peptic ulcers. All three of the diseases would be treatable today.

Darwin died in 1882 and none of the diagnostic techniques used today existed. Cohen could only guess at his ailments from historic records of his symptoms. Darwin was generally healthy before his 5-year voyage on the Beagle – although he was seasick for most of his time at sea. The voyage took him to South America, across the Pacific via the Galapagos Islands, and to Africa. About a year after returning to England he began falling ill. During the worst periods of his illness, he threw up after every meal, especially after breakfast.

He went through debilitating cycles the rest of his life – although he lived to the ripe old age of 73.

More here Short Sharp Science: What killed Charles Darwin?.

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5 Responses to What killed Charles Darwin?

  1. alfy says:

    I shall go for Chaga’s Disease. Briefly. it is caused by a trypanosome (a flagellated protozoan – Trypanosoma cruzi )- but it may well have been renamed by now). It lives in the blood and other tissues and produces a chronic debilitating disease which, however, is rarely fatal. Darwin probably died with, but not of, Chaga’s Disease.

    The vector of the trypanosome is the benchuca, or “Great Black Bug of the Pampas”. It is a member of the order Hemiptera, to which the “cuckoo spit” bug and a wide range of harmless British bugs belong. The benchuca lives rather like a cockroach, and it is much the same size, hiding in the roofing material or wall cavities of native huts. It comes out at night, rather like the much smaller bed bugs, and sucks human blood. It injects saliva with an anticoagulant, and also the trypanosome.

    Now, Darwin was in Minais Gerais, if I remember correctly, staying overnight in native huts. He mentions being bitten by the bugs in his journals. Someone did some research which showed that all native huts harboured the benchuca and that 90% of the insects were infected with the trypanosome.

    Essentially, it would be amazing if Darwin had not caught Chaga’s disease, given the direct evidence.

  2. Deskarati says:

    Very interesting Alfy, I found this account on Wikipedia.

    At the beginning of the 19th century Charles Darwin made one of the first reports of the existence of triatomines in America in his Journal and Remarks, commonly known as The Voyage of the Beagle. The following is an extract of what he wrote on 25 March 1835:

    “We crossed the Luxan, which is a river of considerable size, though its course towards the sea-coast is very imperfectly known: it is even doubtful whether, in passing over the plains, it is not evaporated and lost. We slept in the village of Luxan, which is a small place surrounded by gardens, and forms the most southern cultivated district in the Province of Mendoza; it is five leagues south of the capital. At night I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca, a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the Pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one’s body. Before sucking they are quite thin, but afterwards they become round and bloated with blood, and in this state are easily crushed. One which I caught at Iquique, (for they are found in Chile and Peru,) was very empty. When placed on a table, and though surrounded by people, if a finger was presented, the bold insect would immediately protrude its sucker, make a charge, and if allowed, draw blood. No pain was caused by the wound. It was curious to watch its body during the act of sucking, as in less than ten minutes it changed from being as flat as a wafer to a globular form. This one feast, for which the benchuca was indebted to one of the officers, kept it fat during four whole months; but, after the first fortnight, it was quite ready to have another suck.”

    — Note: Luxan is Luján de Cuyo.
    There has been considerable medical speculation as to whether or not Darwin’s contact with triatomines in Argentina was related to his later bouts of long term illness.

  3. alfy says:

    Excellent work, Jim, and I apologise for thinking it was Minais Gerais. I can’t be expected to remember everything, can I? Now what are triatomines I wonder? Is it a re-naming of Reduvius or the trypanosome? However, the force of my argument is undimmed by these details. The odds against Darwin avoiding the disease were extremely small.

  4. alfy says:

    I made a major error. Minas Gerais is in Brazil, whereas Lujan de Cuyo, or Darwin’s Luxan is, of course, in Argentina.

  5. alfy says:

    “Triatomines” turns out to be a general term for a group of Reduviid bugs, an anglicisation of the generic Latin name, Triatoma, of which there are several species.

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