Darwin, desperate for a cure

This post is part of a series on The Origin Of Species.  It was originally posted on the old blog in feb 2009, during the Darwin 200 celebrations.

I’ve not been up to writing anything new and insightful today. I’ve not been feeling so good or thinking so efficiently, after standing around in the cold and wet, and crowded trains full of bugs. Nothing big — nothing like the chronic illness that plagued Darwin, and interrupted his work, as evidenced in this fantastic letter from Darwin to his sister, as reproduced in Burkhardt’s marvelous collection Origins.

For three and a half months in the spring of 1849, Darwin packed off to the spa town of Malvern for some relief from his illness. In Malvern he received a couple of quack treatments: hydrotherapy and homeopathy. The former has died out, but the latter remains popular, despite the ridiculousness of it being perfectly apparent 160 years ago. In the letter, Darwin describes his disdain for the “remedy”, and notes the homeopath’s hypothesis that Darwin’s mysterious ailment may have its origins in his upper spine. I immediately wondered whether there was an element of another form of quackery here — chiropractic — before it occurred to me that it would be another fifty years before that particular brand of nonsense was created.

Darwin, incidentally, believed that he received a great amount of benefit from the cold water cure. Of course, he would not have been familiar with the placebo effect.



My dear Susan.

As you say you want my hydropathical diary, I will give it you—though tomorrow it is to change to a certain extent:

1⁄4 before 7. get up, & am scrubbed with rough towel in cold water for 2 or 3 minutes, which after the few first days, made & makes me very like a lobster— I have a washerman , a very nice person, & he scrubs behind, whilst I scrub in front. Drink a tumbler of water & get my clothes on as quick as possible & walk for 20 minutes—I could walk further, but I find it tires me afterward— I like all this very much.— At same time I put on a compress, which is a broad wet folded linen covered by mackintosh & which is “refreshed”—i.e. dipt in cold water every 2 hours & I wear it all day, except for about 2 hours after midday dinner; I don’t perceive much effect from this of any kind. After my walk, shave & wash & get my breakfast, which was to have been exclusively toast with meat or egg, but he has allowed me a little milk to sop the stale toast in. At no time must I take any sugar, butter, spices tea bacon or anything good. At 12 o’clock I put my feet for 10 minutes in cold water with a little mustard & they are violently rubbed by my man; the coldness makes my feet ache much, but upon the whole my feet are certainly less cold than formerly. Walk for 20 minutes & dine at one. He has relaxed a little about my dinner & says I may try plain pudding, if I am sure it lessens sickness.

After dinner lie down & try to go to sleep for one hour. At 5 o’clock feet in cold water, drink cold water & walk as before. Supper same as breakfast at 6 o’clock. I have had much sickness this week, but certainly I have felt much stronger & the sickness has depressed me much less. Tomorrow I am to be packed at 6 o’clock a.m. for 1 & 1⁄2 hour in blanket, with hot bottle to my feet & then rubbed with cold dripping sheet; but I do not know anything about this. I grieve to say that Dr Gully gives me homoeopathic medicines three times a day, which I take obediently without an atom of faith. I like Dr Gully much—he is certainly an able man: I have been struck with how many remarks he has made similar to those of my Father.

He is very kind & attentive; but seems puzzled with my case—thinks my head or top of spinal chord cause of mischief. He has generously allowed me 6 pinches of snuff for all this week, which is my chief comfort except thinking all day of myself & prosing to Emma, who bless her old soul, thinks as much about me as I do even myself. I am become perfectly indolent which I feel the oddest change of all to myself & this letter is the greatest mental effort done by me since coming here. My dearest sisters I wish I could see you here. I saw absolutely nothing of you at Down & never talked about my dear Father about whom it is now to me the sweetest pleasure to think, which I fear cannot be your case as yet.

My dears | Yours affectionly | C.D.

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