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Postgrad Med J 81:248-251 doi:10.1136/pgmj.2004.025569
  • History of medicine

Darwin’s illness revealed

  1. Anthony K Campbell1,2,
  2. Stephanie B Matthews1,3
  1. 1The Darwin Centre for Biology and Medicine, Milton, Pembrokeshire, UK
  2. 2Department of Medical Biochemistry and Immunology, Wales College of Medicine, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK
  3. 3Department of Medical Biochemistry and Immunology, Llandough Hospital, Cardiff and Vale NHS Trust, Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
 Professor A Campbell
 Department of Medical Biochemistry and Immunology, Wales College of Medicine, Cardiff University, Heath Park, Cardiff CF14 4XN, UK; campbellakcf.ac.uk
  • Received 15 June 2004
  • Accepted 14 July 2004

Abstract

After returning from the Beagle in 1836, Charles Darwin suffered for over 40 years from long bouts of vomiting, gut pain, headaches, severe tiredness, skin problems, and depression. Twenty doctors failed to treat him. Many books and papers have explained Darwin’s mystery illness as organic or psychosomatic, including arsenic poisoning, Chagas’ disease, multiple allergy, hypochondria, or bereavement syndrome. None stand up to full scrutiny. His medical history shows he had an organic problem, exacerbated by depression. Here we show that all Darwin’s symptoms match systemic lactose intolerance. Vomiting and gut problems showed up two to three hours after a meal, the time it takes for lactose to reach the large intestine. His family history shows a major inherited component, as with genetically predisposed hypolactasia. Darwin only got better when, by chance, he stopped taking milk and cream. Darwin’s illness highlights something else he missed—the importance of lactose in mammalian and human evolution.

Footnotes

  • Funding: none.

  • Competing interests: none.