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Darwin May Have Experienced Extreme Anxiety

Many attempts have been made to diagnose Darwin’s illness, here’s a well-argued possibility

Charles Darwin statue at London’s Natural History Museum (Philippe Lissac / GODONG/Godong/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

When Charles Darwin read Alfred Russel Wallace’s manuscript about a new theory of life on Earth, he was spurred into action. The ideas in Wallace’s 20 pages were too close to Darwin’s own work, which he had held back from publishing for decades. "All my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed," he wrote to a friend. Darwin then rushed into print summary of his theory of evolution, which we now celebrate as the beginning of a scientific revolution.

The threat Wallace’s manuscript represented would induce panic in any person, but Darwin was perhaps more vulnerable to that feeling. Maria Popova, for Brain Pickings, writes that the father of evolution may have dealt with chronic anxiety. She pulls excerpts from Scott Stossel’s book My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind, an account of the author’s and society’s struggle with anxiety. Popova writes:

Stossel points to a “Diary of Health” that the scientist kept for six years between the ages of 40 and 46 at the urging of his physician. He filled dozens of pages with complaints like “chronic fatigue, severe stomach pain and flatulence, frequent vomiting, dizziness (‘swimming head,’ as Darwin described it), trembling, insomnia, rashes, eczema, boils, heart palpitations and pain, and melancholy.”

In her post, Popova excerpts from Darwin’s letters to his colleagues and details both his search for effective treatments and history’s attempts to diagnose the man. The possibility that he suffered from anxiety, though, does make a lot of sense given some of his habits — keeping his house running like clockwork and sticking to a strict routine. 

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