Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

How Charles Darwin Was Cured by Water

By John Hayman

The “water cure” relieved Charles Darwin of periods of nausea, but why didn’t it work at home?

Charles Darwin’s long illness has been the subject of great speculation. Many of his treatments would be regarded today as “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), but the relief he obtained from the “water cure”, while not understood then, can now be explained by a modern understanding of physiology.

Darwin consulted many different doctors and tried many different treatments throughout his long illness. Most of the therapy involved ineffectual if not harmful treatments, usually abandoned within a week or two. He tried a form of galvanism with brass and zinc wires moistened with vinegar draped over his body, and endured ice bags placed for hours along his spine. His medications included purgatives, mercury, hydrocyanic acid and arsenic. The only apparently beneficial treatment was hydrotherapy, or the “water cure”.

Darwin’s symptoms were mostly those seen in patients diagnosed with cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS). He suffered periodic nausea, retching, vomiting and much flatulence, together with other symptoms. Attacks were characteristically brought on by minor stress, including pleasurable events such as the visits of friends.

In 1849 Darwin’s symptoms were particularly severe, and in desperation he tried “hydrotherapy” after it had been recommended by friends. The establishment where he first went for treatment was that of James Gully, an enthusiastic proponent of the treatment. Gully, unfortunately, also believed in mesmerism and homeopathy, practices that Darwin deplored.

The treatment consisted of various unpleasant modalities, such as being deluged in cold water, wrapped in cold wet sheets and vigorously rubbed with rough towels soaked in cold water. This treatment was combined with moderate exercise and a bland diet from which “anything good” had been removed.

Darwin’s symptoms improved remarkably, to the extent that he stayed for 16 weeks instead of the 2 months initially planned. Darwin wrote many letters extolling the value of the therapy, such as this letter to his cousin Fox: “The Water Cure is assuredly a grand discovery & how sorry I am I did not hear of it, or rather that I was not somehow compelled to try it some five or six years ago”.

After his return to Downe, Darwin had a douche shed built in the grounds of his home, where he was doused with a large volume of cold water on a daily basis by his faithful butler, Parslow. Treatment at home was apparently less successful and was discontinued after 6 months. Darwin, however, continued to visit Malvern and other resorts where, with the occasional exception, he obtained relief: “I have tried it repeatedly and always with wonderfully good effects, but not permanent in my case”.

Patients with CVS today often obtain relief from water exposure and exhibit intense hydrophilia – apparently one characteristic of the syndrome. Interestingly, patients with similar cyclical vomiting related to marijuana abuse (cannabinoid hyperemesis) may also experience relief from water contact.

The effectiveness of the water cure in Darwin’s case may have involved both psychological and physiological mechanisms. We know that Darwin’s episodes of sickness were prompted by mental stimulation, and the water cure was carried out in resorts where, apart from the excruciating treatments, there was no such stimulation. Darwin sought this treatment when he was persistently ill while dissecting and classifying barnacles. He wrote to his friend and mentor, John Henslow: “One of the most singular effects of the treatment is that it includes in most people and eminently in my case, the most complete stagnation of mind. I have ceased to think even of barnacles.”

Patients today cannot afford to spend weeks, even months, being cared for in institutions but they still obtain relief from water exposure. Hydrotherapy may produce reflex vagal stimulation, thereby reducing gastrointestinal symptoms. The vagus is a complex cranial nerve with sensory, motor and autonomic components with a long evolutionary history. It is stimulated by water on the face or body and its autonomic function, among other effects, is to relax the antral region of the stomach and even slow heart rate.

Home hydrotherapy was less successful for Darwin, suggesting that the psychological component provided the benefit more than any physiological effect. However, benefits obtained by CVS patients today must be due to physiological factors, and it seems that physiology as well as psychological effects contributed to Darwin’s improvement.

Unorthodox treatments may occasionally provide relief for some patients and give an indication of therapeutic modalities that can be fully evaluated. The vagus can be stimulated by external devices, with days and severity of sickness recorded so that objective assessment of any benefit in CVS patients is possible.

Dr John Hayman is an Associate Professor of Pathology at The University of Melbourne.