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Scientists Investigate Illness, Death Of Darwin

May 7, 2011

Doctors are putting modern medicine to the test to unravel the mystery of the long, painful illness and death of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution.

Darwin’s ailments were the subject of this year’s annual Historical Clinicopathological Conference (CPC) in Baltimore on Friday.  The conference, sponsored by the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs (VA) Maryland Health Care System, is devoted to the modern medical diagnosis of disorders that affected prominent historical figures.

Previous conferences have centered around Alexander the Great, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Booker T. Washington.

Guest speakers at this year’s conference include Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter, poet Ruth Padel, who authored the book, “Darwin: A Life in Poems.”

Darwin was born in England in 1809, and suffered most of his life from chronic vomiting, abdominal pain and gastrointestinal distress. 

The British naturalist traveled the world in his 20s, cataloging and observing wildlife and fossils.  He became fascinated by the way species appeared to adapt and change, and published his seminal work, On the Origin of Species, in 1859.  The book detailed Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection.

In subsequent books, he described the evolution of humans and sexual selection, as well as publishing other work on plants and geology.

Darwin’s contribution changed the way the world regarded science, and serves as the foundation for the field of evolution.

Darwin sought help for a number of health problems throughout his life, including vomiting stomach acids after every meal when the symptoms were at their worst.  He was diagnosed with multiple conditions including schizophrenia, appendicitis and lactose intolerance. 

“It is particularly poignant that the scientists and physicians of his time could not provide Darwin, the father of modern life sciences, with relief from the ailments that affected so much of his life,” said Philip Mackowiak, the VA Maryland medical care clinical center chief and UM medical school professor who began the conference in 1995.

Darwin, who fathered 10 children, died of heart failure in 1882 at the age of 73.

The information used to evaluate Darwin’s case came from several sources, including the naturalist’s own letters, in which he wrote extensively about his symptoms and his worries that his children may have inherited his illness, said Mackowiak.

Gastroenterologist Dr. Sidney Cohen, a professor of medicine at Thomas Jefferson University, assessed Darwin’s conditions for the conference and identified three illnesses.   Cohen, who had no X-rays or blood studies to use in his evaluation, said he used only the documented symptoms to devise “an analysis of this journey of invalidism that he suffered throughout his life.”

“It is a symptom-based specialty, though now we have some extraordinary diagnostic tools,” he said.

“It would have been nice to have some CT scans.”

Cohen concluded that Darwin suffered from cyclic vomiting syndrome in his early life. He also believes Darwin contracted Chagas disease, a parasitic illness that can lie dormant for years, during a five-year trip around the world in his 20s on the HMS Beagle.

That illness would describe the heart condition that Darwin suffered from later in life, and which ultimately caused his death, Cohen added.

He also believes Darwin suffered from Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria that cause peptic ulcer disease and often accompanies Chagas.

Cohen said his research into Darwin’s health disorders gave him a deeper appreciation for the man.

“Darwin was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln in 1809,” he said.

Lincoln was the subject of a previous CPC that examined whether the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center could have saved the president from the gunshot wound that killed him.

“That these two men born on that same day have such a lasting impact on our world 200 years later is extraordinary. I have tremendous admiration for Darwin.”

“It’s hard to know how it affected his work,” Mackowiak said.

“But his productivity never waned.”

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