Diagnosing Darwin: Charles Darwin's 'mystery illness'
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2014 Dr. John Anthony Hayman
The naturalist Charles Darwin suffered from severe chronic illness for much of his adult life. He consulted many doctors and suffered from their different treatments with little effect. The nature of his illness was never clear to any of these treating doctors, although they proposed several diverse diagnoses, diagnoses that are not recognised today. Since Darwin’s death his illness has been the subject of much speculation and, in all, more than 40 different diagnoses have been proposed. Many of these suggested diagnoses may be discarded as Darwin had clear evidence of his disorder when still a University student; before he sailed on HMS Beagle and long before he had thoughts on Evolution. His symptoms have been described in great detail in his correspondence, in his autobiography and other writings, in the diary of his wife Emma and in the writings of others. In this thesis, it is proposed that these symptoms are consistent with a mitochondrial disorder, a disorder that he presumably inherited from his mother and shared with his maternal uncle, Tom and their youngest sibling, Mary Ann. Charles Darwin’s own siblings would have also inherited the same mutation and some also developed symptoms in later life. Darwin’s symptoms most closely fit the diagnosis of the Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome with an overlap of symptoms that occur with other poorly defined illnesses– the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Abdominal Migraine, the Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. He also had symptoms of one other condition, the MELAS syndrome. All these conditions have been shown, at least in some patients, to be associated with mitochondrial dysfunction. As Darwin’s illness appears to have been maternally inherited it is a reasonable assumption that this dysfunction was due to an inherited mitochondrial DNA abnormality. Contrary to previous commentaries, Darwin’s illness was not psychogenic due to suppressed hostility to his father, it was not due to any primary psychological cause, it was not due to arsenic poisoning or systemic lactose intolerance, and it was not due to some parasitic infection acquired while exploring in South America. It is hypothesised that Darwin’s illness was due to a mutation in his mitochondrial genome and further hypothesised that this mutation affected the function of neuroendocrine cells in his gut and brain as well as other cells that have high--‐energy requirements.
Keywordsmitochondria; Charles Darwin; cyclic vomiting
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