During his lifetime, Charles Darwin complained of so many different ailments that it’s no small miracle the pioneering evolutionary biologist got any work done. Historians have struggled to understand the exact nature of his illness or illnesses, but new research suggests one potentially obvious malady has been overlooked: Lyme disease.
That Charles Darwin, born in 1809, suffered from a host of ailments is well documented. A prolific writer, the author of On the Origin of Species made copious notes about his various health woes, a litany of problems that included muscle tremors, panic attacks (including “hysterical crying,” in his own words), vertigo, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, weakness and fatigue, intermittent face rashes, shivering, “singing in the ears” (likely tinnitus), and gastrointestinal problems, such as vomiting and flatulence.
Many of these afflictions started when Darwin was a student, and continued until his death in 1882.
“Charles Darwin’s strange collection of symptoms defied the medical experts of his day for an explanation,” Jeffrey M. Marcus, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba’s Department of Biological Sciences, told Gizmodo. “Desperate for relief, he tried all sorts of treatment, some that was legitimate—though perhaps inappropriate—and some that was undeniable quackery. Because his symptoms did not conform to any recognizable diagnosis, many, both in Darwin’s day and now, suspected that hypochondria was playing a role in causing Darwin’s miseries.”
Hypochondria notwithstanding, historians have tried to identify the nature of Darwin’s illness or illnesses for decades, leading to over 40 different diagnoses, including Chagas disease, lupus, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, eczema, lactose intolerance, among others. Last year, researchers from the University of Melbourne suggested that Darwin’s long-term illness was the result of a mitochondrial disorder.
Absent among these many possibilities, however, is chronic borreliosis, otherwise known as Lyme disease. New research published this week in Denisea, the official scientific journal of the Natural History Museum Rotterdam, is now the first to do so, using descriptions in Darwin’s diaries, notebooks, and letters to re-evaluate his symptoms and construct an updated picture of the naturalist’s health.
In the new study, researchers Erwin Kompanje and Jelle Reumer note that Darwin had ample opportunities to contract Lyme disease, which is caused by an infection of the Borrelia bacterium and typically transmitted via ticks. Surprisingly, Darwin could have contracted the disease in Great Britain, and not during his famous expedition aboard the Beagle to tropical climates, according to the new research. Indeed, Darwin often travelled around England and Wales to collect specimens, analyze rocks, and shoot birds, both before and after his voyage on the Beagle in 1831, as the new paper notes. Importantly, tick-borne infections were documented in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though Lyme disease wasn’t formally recognized until 1976, the researchers write.
In terms of symptoms, the authors said Darwin suffered from a “complex condition with multisystem symptoms” in which Lyme disease “may have played an important role,” possibly in combination with another illness, likely lactose intolerance (a diagnosis made in 2005, to which Kompanje and Reumer are in agreement). These symptoms, the authors wrote, may have been exacerbated and “complicated” by Darwin’s “hypochondriac predisposition.”
That Lyme disease could have contributed to Darwin’s many symptoms is not an outrageous proposition. The disease is known to cause neurological symptoms, such as panic disorders, vertigo, trembling, breathlessness, and palpitations, and the gastrointestinal and skin problems described by Darwin.
Of the many diagnoses of Darwin made by historians, Chagas disease has been one of the most popular. The reason for this, aside from the consistency of symptoms, has to do with a written account made by Darwin in which he describes a particularly nasty insect bite he received while in Argentina—a possible vector of Chagas disease.
“However, exposure to a tick carrying Borrelia in Great Britain is much more plausible than exposure to Chagas disease during his travel in South America,” the authors wrote in the new study. “Also, the clinical course with relatively mild fluctuation symptoms, partly already present before arrival in South America is more compatible with chronic borreliosis than with chronic Chagas disease.”
As for a possible mitochondrial disorder, Kompanje and Reumer said this could account for many of Darwin’s symptoms, but “mitochondrial disorders with late onset multi-organ clinical manifestation are still extremely rarely diagnosed,” they wrote. Given the higher prevalence of Lyme disease, “we consider Lyme disease to be a more plausible diagnosis of Darwin’s illness.”
So did Darwin suffer from Lyme disease? It’s certainly possible, but it’s yet another diagnosis-from-a-distance that we can plop onto the 40-plus diagnoses already made. What’s more, Lyme disease is notoriously difficult to diagnose, even today, leading to its designation as “the great imitator” on account of its resemblance to many other diseases.
“Many patients who do not present with the canonical bulls-eye rash around the site of the bite are not diagnosed correctly and suffer for years with an ever-changing constellation of neurological, skeleto-muscular, dermatological, and digestive symptoms,” Marcus, who wasn’t involved with the new study, told Gizmodo. “Because the symptoms of chronic Lyme are not consistent between patients and sometimes not even within individual patients over time, even modern Lyme patients are often incorrectly diagnosed as being hypochondriacs or sometimes ‘just plain crazy’ by the medical establishment. The parallels with Darwin’s illness are remarkable.”
Marcus said he had never considered Darwin’s illness in the context of Lyme disease before, but now, with hindsight, it seems quite plausible.
“The right kinds of ticks were almost certainly present in Britain during Darwin’s lifetime, as was the bacterium that causes Lyme disease,” he said. “So, it is plausible that Darwin might have contracted Lyme disease in Britain, and the chronic infection may have been an important piece of why he was so uncomfortable for so many decades. With that said, he may have also had additional maladies that may have contributed to his symptoms.”
Tara Moriarty, an expert on infectious diseases at the University of Toronto, said the new paper made for an “enjoyable read,” but was scant on tangible scientific evidence. What’s more, she said the symptoms listed by the authors are atypical for Lyme disease.
“It’s certainly possible that Darwin could have contracted Lyme disease because he spent time in areas where he might have been exposed to ticks and birds that might have carried Lyme-infected ticks,” Moriarty told Gizmodo. “However, the hypothesis that the symptoms described in his letters and notebooks were Lyme disease seems fairly unlikely because Darwin didn’t appear to have any common symptoms of Lyme disease, and all of the symptoms cited by the authors are unusual for Lyme disease but are frequently observed for the other, more common conditions the authors describe.”
Given that historians and scientists are still trying to diagnose Darwin 136 years after his death, it’s likely we may never know the true cause, or causes, of his various ailments. What we do know, however, is that his poor health didn’t prevent him from becoming one of the most influential scientists in history. And despite a life of poor health, Darwin lived to the respectable age of 73, dying of a suspected heart attack.