Charles Darwin probably suffered from cyclical vomiting syndrome (CVS), claims Professor John Hayman in the Christmas issue, published on bmj.com today.
In the bi-centenary of Darwin's birth, Professor Hayman, from the Anatomy and Developmental Biology Department at Monash University in Melbourne, argues that it is time to identify the illness that plagued Darwin "and to refute the many fanciful proffered diagnoses, both physical and psychological or psychoanalytical."
Charles Darwin suffered from nausea, vomiting, headaches, stomach and skin problems for most of his adult life. For varying periods he was so disabled by his illness that he became a virtual recluse.
Psychological diagnoses have included hypochondria, panic disorders, 'repressed anger towards his father', nervousness about his relationship with his wife and guilt over conflict with his earlier religious belief. While physical diagnoses have included middle ear infection, arsenic poisoning and tropical parasitic disease.
Hayman argues that the theories for Darwin's ill health "have all been disallowed for good reasons." The renowned scientist may have suffered from anxiety but this was probably because of his illness not the cause of it, says Professor Hayman.
The author claims that Darwin's symptoms indicate that he suffered from cyclical vomiting syndrome. While this disease mainly affects children it can present for the first time in adulthood. The syndrome is related to migraine but is linked to genetic abnormalities.
Classic symptoms of cyclical vomiting syndrome include severe sickness, headaches, anxiety and intense abdominal pain. Many patients also suffer from eczema and recurrent skin infections. Darwin's mother and members of her family suffered from many of these conditions.
Hayman concludes: "Darwin was not aware of mitochondria or of genes and genetic mutations but he was very much aware of random variations within species ..... His personal inherited genetic variation made him substantially 'less fit' but his survival prospects were greatly increased by his driving intellect, loyal colleagues, a devoted wife, family and household servants and his personal wealth."