Darwin’s Madness

4 May 2013 by Nsikan Akpan, posted in TBS Journal Club

A historical investigation into the mysterious disease that haunted the famous evolutionary biologist.

Italian painting of Charles Darwin, ca. 1890

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.

Some were good and others…well, ‘Lindsay Lohan’ counts as a health topic in her own special way, am I right?

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.


Click to enlarge. Source: wikipedia. 

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.

8 Responses to “Darwin’s Madness”

  1. Alaa Reply | Permalink

    I don't think inbreeding affects mitochondrially inherited diseases, there's no paternal contribution to them

    • Nsikan Akpan Reply | Permalink

      In an inbred family, there are fewer maternal lineages to choose from. So once an mtDNA mutation occurs, it's more likely to spread within the family.

  2. Nils R Grotnes Reply | Permalink

    @Nsikan Akpan: I liked your article, but have to point out a few serious errors.

    The chances of a maternal lineage having more offspring than average ("spreading") in each generation is as just as high (or higher) for the ones without the mutation, than the one with. If you assume that on average every lineage get the same number of female offspring, there will be no "spread". Considering that the results of having the mutation makes you less healthy, it's not unreasonable to expect that an affected lineage would actually produce less offspring over the generations. The classic case of inbreeding leading to lethal effects comes from genes that is lethal only when doubled, that is when they are combined from both parents. Thus Alaa is correct.

    As for Darwin’s lineage being "quite inbred" I can't say, but the family tree given as illustration seems surprisingly lacking in that regard... Charles Darwin married Emma Wedgwood, and they shared one set of grandparents (Sarah and Josiah Wedgwood). Since Emma was related to these grandparents through her father, she could not have brought this mutation into the lineage. The only other marriage to close relatives I could find (Caroline Sarah Darwin and Josiah III) is exactly the same. And since Darwin himself couldn't pass on the mutation, his ancestors would have to get such a mutation from somewhere else. From this it's clear to me that a family tree going back much further, starting from Darwin's mother, would be much more likely to illustrate where his proposed mutation would have come from.

  3. Alan Hill Reply | Permalink

    In the first place, describing Darwin's condition as madness is a wild exaggeration; whatever its cause, it was distressing and debilitating, but there can be no doubt that Darwin was one of the sanest of men.
    While I am sceptical about this hypothesis, it ought to be testable: any descendants of Sarah Wedgwood's daughters in the female line or of Charles Darwin's sister Caroline (who married Josiah Wedgwood III as noted above) would have inherited such a mitochondrial abnormality. The only one in the Wikipedia family tree is the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Did he suffer any similar symptoms? It is not impossible that there may also be living descendants who could, in theory, be tested for this condition.

  4. John Hayman Reply | Permalink

    I feel that it is important to establish the true nature of Darwin's illness for several reasons. Firstly, it confounds those who deny evolution, argue that Darwin had a psychological illness, was psychologically flawed and therefore, somehow, evolution must also be flawed. Secondly, it assists those who have similar illness today, who like Darwin, are labelled as having an imaginary or fabricated illness. If the hypothesis is accepted, the detailed, almost lifetime history of Darwin's illness and the illnesses of the Wedgwood families shows the wide range of debilitating symptoms that may be associated with the one mtDNA mutation. And, lastly we owe it to Darwin and to medical science to show that the illness was not primarily psychological in nature; Darwin's illness was in his mitochondria, not in his mind.

    • Nsikan Akpan Reply | Permalink

      Those are great points, Dr. Hayman, especially the first. Thank you for contributing to the discussion.

  5. WilletteWDavos Reply | Permalink

    Asking questions are in fact fastidious thing if you are not
    understanding anything fully, except this article presents nice understanding

  6. Sakshi jain Reply | Permalink


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