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Did Charles Darwin Have Lyme Disease?

New study attributes British naturalist’s persistent poor health to tick-borne disease

The researchers posit that Darwin contracted Lyme disease while exploring the expanses of Great Britain (Public domain)
smithsonian.com

Throughout his adult life, Charles Darwin was plagued by bouts of poor health, including “incessant vomiting,” trembling hands, a “swimming” head,” “singing in the ears” (likely linked with tinnitus), and “violent palpitation of the heart.” Historians have long puzzled over the exact nature of Darwin’s ailments, proposing diagnoses like Chagas disease, lactose intolerance and a mitochondrial disorder. But as George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo, a new study identifies a previously unmentioned culprit: Lyme disease.

The findings, now published in Denisea, the official scientific journal of the Natural History Museum Rotterdam, posit that the naturalist contracted the tick-borne disease in the somewhat surprising locale of his home country, Great Britain. Although Darwin visited numerous tropical regions during his famed voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle and subsequent research expeditions, the researchers argue it’s more likely he encountered an infectious tick while roaming the expanses of England, Wales and Scotland. Despite the fact that Lyme disease wasn’t formally diagnosed until 1976, Dvorsky notes that instances of the tick-borne disease abound in late 19th- and early 20th-century European records.

Lead researcher Erwin Kompanje of Rotterdam’s Erasmus University medical centre tells the Guardian’s Ian Sample that “[Darwin] had a lot of different symptoms: involuntary twitching of muscles, swimming of the head, a shortness of breath, trembling hands.”

He adds, “All of them came and went, and that is quite typical of Lyme disease.”

To analyze Darwin’s maladies, Kompanje and study co-author Jelle Reumer of the Natural History Museum Rotterdam sifted through the scientist’s copious body of correspondence and personal writings. These accounts, many of which are available through the University of Cambridge’s online Darwin portal, offer a portrait of a man beset by chronic illness. In a March 28, 1949, letter to a friend named Joseph Hooker, for example, Darwin explains, “I was not able to do anything one day out of three, [and] was altogether too dispirited to write to you or to do anything but what I was compelled.”

According to the study, Darwin’s symptoms can be divided into three categories: dysautonomic (or related to the autonomic nervous system), neurological and psychiatric; gastrointestinal; and cutaneous (affecting the skin). The first group of ailments closely resembled what we would now call a panic disorder, with key complaints, including fatigue, dizziness and heart palpitations. Some studies have drawn on these symptoms to suggest Darwin suffered from agoraphobia, but the new study points out that his wife, Emma, once wrote “he always tells me how he ... never wants to be alone”— a sentiment not likely shared by most true agoraphobics. Indeed, the authors note that recent research has linked the sudden onset of panic attacks with underlying Lyme disease. Upon receiving treatment for Lyme, some patients have reported these symptoms abated. Overall, the researchers attribute this group of symptoms to “atypical panic attacks.”

The second category of gastrointestinal symptoms—amongst others, flatulence, vomiting and nausea—has previously been attributed to Crohn’s disease or lactose intolerance. Adding to the mix, the study proposes yet another disorder: Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome, which is marked by periods of debilitating vomiting triggered by “stress, excitement and fatigue.”

Finally, in reference to Darwin’s recorded battles with rashes and eczema, the authors suggest that such skin inflammations emerged as a side effect of panic disorder, which they in turn identify as “a rare symptom of chronic borreliosis,” or Lyme disease.

As the Guardian’s Sample notes, the popular diagnosis of Chagas disease, an infection spread by insects native to the Americas, originates from Darwin’s mention of being bitten by a “great black bug of the Pampas” during an 1835 trip to Argentina. But Kompanje and Reumer say that the naturalist's symptoms align more closely with Lyme disease, in part because certain recurring complaints appeared before the South American expedition.

The pair’s final assessment of a “complex condition with multisystem symptoms” pinpoints Lyme as Darwin’s major affliction, but as Dvorsky explains for Gizmodo, the researchers believe another illness, likely lactose intolerance, contributed to the scientist’s poor health. Combined with what the study terms Darwin’s “hypochondriac predisposition,” it’s unsurprising that his litany of illnesses continues to fascinate.

Still, not everyone is convinced: Richard Wall, a tick expert at the University of Bristol, tells the Guardian, “Borreliosis is a particularly difficult infection to diagnose symptomatically even when the patient is available … so retrospective diagnosis at a historical distance of 200 years, while interesting, must be considered as highly speculative.”

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