Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Darwin’s Diagnoses

By John Hayman

The father of modern biology suffered much at the hands of alternative medical practitioners.

Charles Darwin had recurrent illness for most of his adult life, with many different and some bizarre symptoms. More than 40 diagnoses have been proposed for these, including some by proponents of alternative medicine. These include practitioners of “orthomolecular medicine” who treat complaints, including psychiatric complaints, with large, sometimes toxic, doses of vitamins (megavitamin therapy) in the belief that these will correct individual biochemical malfunctions.

Such beliefs are unproven – except, of course, by inevitable reports of occasional individuals describing miraculous

resolution of lifelong symptoms. These cases are always well-publicised, while the many more that have no benefit or even adverse effects are ignored. For example, the blowtorch of the controlled trial proved that niacin (vitamin B3) therapy had no effect on schizophrenia.

Among the many differing diagnoses proposed for Darwin’s illness is the proposal that Darwin suffered from pyrroluria. This is a hypothetical orthomolecular disorder in which there are said to be excessive pyrroles in the body due to defective haemoglobin synthesis. Orthodox scientific medical literature provides no evidence that such a condition exists.

Indeed, this ailment’s signs and symptoms are such that all of us would have at least one symptom of the condition. For example, did you get a “stitch” in your side when you ran as child, or are you easily tired? More specific signs are cited, including the presence of bushy eyebrows and an inability to remember dreams.

Darwin’s undoubtedly bushy eyebrows, and some other criteria, would certainly have qualified for pyrroluria. These include eczema, tingling sensations, cold hands and feet, anxiety, social withdrawal and fairly strong dependence on one person (Darwin’s wife, Emma), as well as a family member who had committed suicide (possibly his maternal uncle, Tom).

However Darwin could remember and on several occasions actually recorded his dreams. For example:

Octob 30th (1838) – Dreamt somebody gave me a book in French I read the first page & pronounced each word distinctly, woke instantly but could not gather general sense of this page.

Another alternate medical disorder supposedly causing Darwin’s illness is “candida overload”. Candida overload is proposed when, for no good reason and with no actual demonstration of such an occurrence, there is a hypothetical “candida imbalance”. Patients experience headaches, lethargy, reduced concentration, indigestion, heartburn, food allergies, skin rashes, joint soreness and mood swings.

Millions of us allegedly suffer from this disorder yet remain undiagnosed. Needless to say, some are allegedly cured of these complaints after a lifetime of illness by anti-yeast therapy or packaged Lactobacillus cultures – just read the testimonials!

Darwin had no reason to be in “candida imbalance”. He had none of the recognised causes for candida overgrowth.

One should not be too disparaging of these alternate medicine diagnoses. Some psychogenic proposals for Darwin’s illness – such as suppressed hostility to his father and his dear wife Emma, suppressed feelings of guilt and other inner conflicts – are equally implausible.

Some non-psychological diagnoses are also imaginative. One is that Darwin suffered from “chronic eyestrain” while one of the most popular and persistent is that he suffered from Chagas’ disease, a tropical parasitic disease, which can be dismissed simply on the grounds that Darwin had symptoms of his illness before he left England.

The diagnoses made by the many doctors who treated Darwin were for conditions that are generally not recognised today, such as “atypical gout”. Not surprisingly the treatments offered were not beneficial – in fact some must have made Darwin’s suffering worse.

There was one treatment, the “water cure”, that did provide relief. This remedy will be discussed in next month’s column but it should be noted that even if a diagnosis is not correct the treatment may sometimes be helpful.

A diagnosis that explains all of Darwin’s many symptoms is that of an inherited mitochondrial disorder, probably the most common A3243G mtDNA mutation. This diagnosis is supported by a matrilineal family history of illness spanning five generations from Darwin’s maternal grandmother to a granddaughter of Darwin’s sister.

Even today, effective treatment options for this disorder are very limited. Many patients who have the same type of complaint often obtain most relief from a form of the “water cure”.

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