Darwin’s Illness

Despite the title, I have no intention of discussing the extensive literature on the origin and nature of Darwin’s chronic illness.[1] My concern here is to examine the contention that trepidation about the potential vehement opposition his evolutionary theory would evoke from his religious friends and acquaintances, and among the privileged classes in general, greatly exacerbated his symptoms. The widely-held view that there was such a link is a significant feature of Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s biography Darwin (1991), and in the course of challenging the very basis of this contention, I shall also examine the means by which these authors seek to persuade their readers to accept it.

On his return from the five-year Beagle voyage, Darwin was committed to an immense amount of writing directly related to his experiences, and was also keen to follow up his geological discoveries. He was not in any position to give much time to his ideas on evolution that were ignited in March 1837 (Sulloway 1982), but in July 1837 he started jotting down miscellaneous items in the first of his “Transmutation of Species” notebooks (Notebook B). Desmond and Moore immediately describe it as “clandestine” (1991, p. 229), though a more accurate description would be “private” since there was no reason at that stage for him to mention it to anyone. In September 1837 Darwin was showing early signs of the illness that was to become chronic a few years later, and Desmond and Moore immediately associate this with his evolutionary work: “deep into his clandestine work… his health was breaking” (1991, p. 233).

While not suggesting that Darwin’s severe bouts of sickness were attributable solely to worries related to his evolutionary writings, Desmond and Moore frequently associate these writings, and also purported concerns about contemporary political events, with such episodes. In a chapter that focuses almost entirely on the notes on the transformation of species that Darwin made in 1838, the authors write: “He continued mutating species, but each conceptual leap turned the screw on his stomach.” Supposedly “he was feeling jumpy about the hysteria his views would unleash among his clerical friends”; moreover, “This sort of flaming science was favoured by street agitators, the people trying to overthrow the undemocratic state.” (1991, p. 249) 

Later in 1838, we are told, “Worries about his heresies made him repeatedly ill” (p. 269). Despite the categorical way in which this assertion is made, there is not a single item in any of Darwin’s notebooks or letters to support it. Elsewhere the authors note that during that year “His geology book…was grinding on slowly…and the Zoology numbers ‘murder much of my time’. The notebooks were draining his energy and the Journal [of Researches of the Voyage of H. M. S. Beagle] still was not out” (p. 262). As was to become a permanent feature of his life, concentrated work on his writings exacerbated his illness, and this was evidently starting to occur in 1838.

Moving on to 1839, Desmond and Moore insinuate that political events were impinging on Darwin’s life and making him ill: “By summer the disorder on the streets was impossible to avoid… The radical workers…were taking matters into their own hands”, and so on (1991, p. 286). The authors immediately follow their recording of contemporary political activities with a paragraph beginning “Darwin was sick with worry”. But there is nothing in Darwin’s letters or notebooks of the time that indicates concern about concurrent political events.

In 1840, according to Desmond and Moore, Darwin’s “double life” of socialising with opponent of evolutionary theory such as Richard Owen “was the stuff of inner conflict, as his sickness confirmed” (p. 291). But Darwin’s personal Journal and letters show that his transmutation of species theory was unrelated to bouts of illness. His Journal entry for 24 December 1839 notes that he had to suspend his main work schedule because he “became unwell, & with the exception of two or three days remained so till the 24th of February. In this interval read a little for Transmutn theory, but otherwise lost these whole months.” In the early part of 1840 he again “became unwell & did not commence Coral volume till March 26th”. In a letter to his friend William Fox dated 7 June 1840 he reported that he had “scarcely put pen to paper for the last half year, & everything in the publishing line is going backward”. In the Journal entry for 14 November Darwin wrote: “During this summer when well enough did a good deal of species work.” In other words, contrary to the impression Desmond and Moore assiduously seek to create, it was concentrated work, not thoughts about his transmutation theory, that led to severe episodes of illness.

Social activities also exacerbated his symptoms. On the 28 March 1840 Darwin wrote to the Geological Society apologising for having been missed their last four meetings as “I have never once attended, without having suffered the next day”. Again, in a letter to Fox on 25 January 1841 he wrote: “I am forced to live, however, very quietly and am unable to see anybody & and cannot even talk long with my nearest relatives.”

To reiterate: close examination of Darwin’s letters and notebooks demonstrates that there is no correlation between Darwin’s severe bouts of illness and his working on evolutionary theory. If anything, the contrary was the case: when not well enough to work on his writing commitments, he sometimes turned to his notes on the transmutation of species. In the spring of 1841 he noted that he had completed a “paper on Boulders & Till of S. America”, then records: “idle & unwell – sorted papers on Species theory”. As he later wrote in the context of his work pertaining to his Beagle voyage in the period up to his leaving London in 1842: “Nor did I ever intermit collecting facts bearing on the origin of species; and I could sometimes do this when I could do nothing else from illness” (Darwin 1958, p. 99).

Desmond and Moore portray Darwin as a man who trembled at the very thought of the hostile reaction that publication of his evolutionary views would evoke. For instance, they highlight his writing that he had read Adam Sedgwick’s scathing review of the journalistic Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844, “with ‘fear and trembling'” (1991, p. 322). The authors convey the impression that his fears related to the vehemence of Sedgwick’s scornful rejection of the book’s evolutionary content, but an examination of the letter in question shows this is not the case. Darwin tells his friend Charles Lyell that he thought the review “a grand piece of argument against the mutability of species, and I read it with fear and trembling, but was well pleased to find I had not overlooked any of the arguments” (letter, 8 October 1845). In other words, his fear on reading Sedgwick’s review was merely an expression of his concern that it might contain arguments he had failed to consider, though on reading it he was relieved to find that it did not.

Summing up, Desmond and Moore’s intimating that Darwin’s illness was greatly exacerbated specifically when he turned his mind to his evolutionary work is evidence-free. But worse, in Darwin’s Sacred Cause (2009) they manufacture evidence to support their contention:

He was also a sick man. For years he had been regularly, often wretchedly, ill. The closer to “man” and to publication, the worse he became. Five times while writing the Origin of Species he was forced to decamp to a rest home to take the water cure, his nerves wrecked. “No nigger with a lash over him could have worked harder”, he explained as he struggled with his prose. But the real cause “of the main part of the ills to which my flesh is heir”, he admitted, was the Origin’s inflammatory case for the evolution of life by a chancy natural selection, and the expected uproar over its bestial implications. He dreaded being “execrated as an atheist”. For a respectable gentleman, for whom reputation and honour were everything, it was barely endurable. Later, at his spa, sending out copies of the Origin, it was “like living in Hell”. [References supplied] (Desmond and Moore 2009, p. 313)

It is instructive to examine the truncated quotations in the above paragraph in context. The authors claim that Darwin admitted that the real cause of his illness was “the Origin’s inflammatory case for the evolution of life by a chancy natural selection, and the expected uproar over its bestial implications”. But here is what Darwin actually wrote in the letter in question:

I have been extra bad of late, with the old severe vomiting rather often & much distressing swimming of the head… My abstract [On the Origin of Species] is the cause, I believe of the main part of the ills to which my flesh is heir to; but I have only two more chapters & to correct all, & then I shall be a comparatively free man. (Letter to William Fox, 12 February 1859)  

There is nothing here to suggest that he had the supposed “inflammatory case” in mind, rather it was all the hard work he was putting into writing his book that was causing the severe exacerbation of his illness. This is also evident in his intimating that he expected an improvement in health once the work was completed, whereas any fears about the reaction to his work in the terms expressed by Desmond and Moore would hardly be reduced on publication of the book.

The next truncated quotation supposedly has Darwin saying that he “dreaded being ‘execrated as an atheist’.” Again, here is what he actually wrote:

I have been thinking that if I am much execrated as atheist &c, whether the admission of doctrine of natural Selection could injure your Works; but I hope & think not; for as far as I can remember the virulence of bigotry is expended on first offender, & those who adopt his views are only pitied, as deluded, by the wise & cheerful bigots. (Letter to Charles Lyell, 23 November 1859)

So he is not saying that he “dreaded being execrated as an atheist”, he is expressing his concern that Lyell might be found guilty by association by “the wise and cheerful bigots”. Contrary to what Desmond and Moore write, there is nothing here to suggest he was particularly perturbed by the thought that the “virulence of bigotry” will be directed at him.

Desmond and Moore’s final truncated quotation in the above paragraph, in which they directly associate Darwin’s sending out copies of Origin with his reporting it was “like living in Hell”, comes from a letter to Joseph Hooker (27 October or 3 November 1859). The full passage is as follows:

I have been very bad lately; having had an awful “crisis” one leg swelled like elephantiasis – eyes almost closed up – covered with a rash & fiery Boils: but they tell me it will surely do me much good. – it was like living in Hell.

Darwin’s description of his “living in hell” referred to the gruesome symptoms from which he was suffering, and there is nothing here to link these to the mailing of complimentary copies of Origin at that time as the authors would have their readers believe.

Desmond and Moore are clearly intent on impressing on the reader their demeaning portrait of Darwin as having a rather weak character, a man who “rushed towards his debut, with the stomach-churning fear of exposing mankind’s real origin from the beasts. It was the sort of fear that kept him quiet for two decades:[2] the sort that would put him in a sanatorium as the eve of exposure dawned” (2009, p. 289). As Sulloway observes (1996, p. 240), this portrayal of Darwin as someone tormented by his radical ideas to the point of sickness is part and parcel of Desmond and Moore’s social constructivist view of Darwin’s scientific career.[3] Their portrait, however, is a travesty that they make plausible only by resorting to dubious methods of exposition.


1. See R. Colp, Darwin‘s Illness (2008). For an important recent addition to the literature, see John A. Hayman, Darwin’s illness revisited. British Medical Journal, 13 December 2009.

2. For a rebuttal of the claim that fear kept Darwin “quiet for two decades”, see J. van Wyhe (2007). See also A. Esterson (2011a), Darwin’s “Delay”.

3. On the dubious methods Desmond and Moore employ to portray Darwin as a man supposedly “tormented” by fear of the consequences of making public his evolutionary theory, see A. Esterson (2011b), Desmond and Moore’s Darwin.


Colp, R. Jr. (2008). Darwin‘s Illness. University of Florida Press.

Darwin, C. R. (1958). The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. Edited by Nora Barlow. London: Collins.

Darwin, C. R.  The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online. Edited by John van Wyhe.

Desmond, A. and Moore, J. (1991). Darwin. London and New York: Michael Joseph

Desmond, A. and Moore, J. (2009). Darwin‘s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Books.

Levine, G. (1994). “Darwin Revised, and Carefully Edited.” Configurations, 1994, 1: 191-202. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Grene, M. (1993). ‘Recent Biographies of Darwin: The Complexity of Context’ Perspectives on Science. vol. 1, no. 4: 659-675.

Sulloway, F. J. (1982). Darwin’s Conversion: The Beagle Voyage and Its Aftermath. Journal of the History of Biology, vol. 15, no. 3 (Fall 1982): 325-396.

Sulloway, F. J. (1996). Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives. London: Little, Brown and Company.

Wyhe, J. van (2007). Mind the Gap: Did Darwin Avoid Publishing His Theory for Many Years? Notes & Records of the Royal Society (2007), 61: 177-205.

February 2011

About the Author

Allen Esterson has also written articles on books by Walter Isaacson: Walter Isaacson, Einstein, and Mileva Marić, and Patricia Fara: Scientists Anonymous, and on the PBS co-produced documentary “Einstein’s Wife”: Einstein’s Wife: Mileva Marić. In addition to his book Seductive Mirage: An Exploration of the Work of Sigmund Freud, he has written several journal articles on Freud.

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