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.