"Charles Darwin's Illness"

Chagas' Disease
Claimed an Eminent Victim

(Charles Darwin's Illness)

Chagas' disease may be rare outside South America ("Scientists Fear That a Parasite Will Spread in Transfusions," Science Times May 23), but it may already have claimed one very eminent victim: Charles Darwin.

As a naturalist aboard the frigate Beagle, Darwin spent five happy, strenuous years exploring some of the wildest places on earth. But once back in England, his health declined horribly. He suffered extreme lassitude and gastrointestinal pain, nausea, vomiting, sleeplessness and, ultimately, a fatal heart disease. Forced to give up field work and social life, he lived out the rest of his 71 years as a reclusive semi-invalid.

Not a few contemporaries dismissed Darwin's illness as hypochondria; later writers generally assumed it was psychosomatic, probably a reaction to an autocratic father or to the supposed theological implications of his theory of natural selection.

But science, belatedly, has vindicated Darwin. As Prof. Saul Adler of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, a distinguished expert in tropical diseases, pointed out, Darwin had more than once met up with Triatima infestans, the "assassin bug," while in South America. One encounter, in a village at the foot of the Argentine Andes, he described vividly in The Voyage of the Beagle: "At night I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca, a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the Pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one's body. Before sucking they are quite thin but afterwards they become round and bloated with blood."

T. infestans, is now known to be the principal carrier of Chagas' disease, and though the trypanosome itself was not identified until decades after Darwin's death, his symptoms match the clinical portrait of chronic Chagas' disease. With hindsight, it seems clear that it was this protozoan, and not inner doubts or guilt, that reduced a vigorous adventurer to a frail, prematurely aged man who for 40 years (as his son put it) "never knew one day of the health of ordinary men."

Peter Salwen
New York, May 30, 1989

From The New York Times, "Letters," Thursday, June 15, 1989
Copyright © The New York Times
All rights reserved.

Related links:

Galápagos: The Lost Paradise
"In Praise of Walking Sticks"
Peter Salwen's Home Page
Peter Salwen's Mark Twain Page

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