Via PRNewswire.com: Historical Medical Conference Finds Darwin Suffered from Various Gastrointestinal Illnesses. Speculative, but fascinating. Excerpt:
Darwin led a relatively healthy young life until his late 20s. He left home at 22 to travel the globe for the next five years, collecting biological specimens in areas such as South America, the Pacific, the Far East and Africa. He remained healthy for more than a year after returning from his trip. It was then that his symptoms began.
His disorder included sudden attacks of abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and retching, described as "gastric flatus." When the symptoms were at their worst, he vomited after nearly every meal. He seldom vomited food, just stomach acid and other secretions, and his weight and nutrition remained normal. The symptoms match up with those of cyclic vomiting syndrome, says Dr. Cohen.
The gastroenterologist also believes Darwin suffered from a parasitic illness called Chagas disease, which he most likely contracted during his five years traveling the globe on the HMS Beagle. Chagas symptoms often lie dormant for years, as they seem to have done with Darwin.
"Chagas would describe the heart disease, cardiac failure or 'degeneration of the heart' — the term used in Darwin's time to mean heart disease — that he suffered from later in life and that eventually caused his death," explains Dr. Cohen.
Dr. Cohen has an additional explanation for his abdominal pain and gastrointestinal distress. He believes the scientist also suffered from Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria that cause peptic ulcer disease. "H. pylori and Chagas disease can be contracted in the same areas of the world and often occur together," the doctor says.
Physicians of his time diagnosed Darwin with dozens of conditions including schizophrenia, appendicitis, lead poisoning and lactose intolerance. He was treated with cures of the day including arsenic, hydrotherapy, aloes, strychnine and codeine, which provided at most temporary relief.
Unfortunately, doctors practicing in Darwin's lifetime would not have known about the conditions Dr. Cohen has diagnosed, and would not have had access to our modern treatments.