A historical investigation into the mysterious disease that haunted the famous evolutionary biologist.
Week number 1 at the new job is complete, and I’m exhausted! I’ve written more pieces this week than I have in the past year, which led one of my buds to remark, “you are knocking these back at a crazy pace.” Too true, my friend. Too true.
Here’s one story that I wanted to cover, but couldn’t due to time constraints. It’s about Charles Darwin and the illness that he suffered from as an adult, which often left him bedridden for weeks at a time. During these longs bouts, he would complain of debilitating stomach pain and fatigue.
Some argue he was faking it; that his symptoms were simply a part of the madness or psychological stress that so often accompanies genius. Others claim it was a bonafide physical affliction, with guesses that range from irritable bowel syndrome to Chagas’ disease – a parasitic infection that he might have caught during his travels to South America.
A pathologist, John Hayman from the University of Melbourne, is now making the case that Darwin had a rare genetic disease, called MELAS syndrome.
MELAS is caused by defects in the mitochondria DNA, which is entirely inherited from the female parent. Lactic acid tends to accumulate in the bodies of MELAS patients, which can trigger muscle fatigue, stomach pain, and repeated mini-strokes in the brain.
Given that Darwin’s lineage was quite inbred (family tree below), it isn’t too surprising that he might have suffered from a hereditary disease. Mainly pulling from the writings of Hensleigh Wedgewood -- Darwin’s brother-in-law and cousin -- Hayman argues that many of Darwin’s relatives on his maternal side were reported to have symptoms of MELAS: motion sickness, headaches, and fatigue.
While Hayman’s proposal is fascinating, it leaves me wondering one thing: does it really matter if we know the answer?
The zeitgeist of the last 20 years is steeped in revisionist history, especially when it comes to genius. Shakespeare worked with collaborators, Louis Pasteur kept sloppy notes, and James Watson is a sexist and closet racist (Oh, wait…that last bit is probably true).
In Darwin’s case, being cooped up in his apartment with an illness might explain why he had time to write such “an immense volume of work”, as described by Hayman
This isn’t to say that Hayman’s arguments are fruitless; quite the contrary, it’s a very cool inspection of Darwin’s family. I just wonder if historic conjecture doesn’t sometimes tarnish the legacy of the greats.
Hayman J. Charles Darwin's Mitochondria. Genetics. 2013 May;194(1):21-5.
Hayman JA. Darwin's illness revisited. BMJ. 2009;339:b4968.