In a fascinating piece of detective work, John Hayman investigated the mystery illness that plagued Charles Darwin for most of his adult life.

‘ I became interested in the topic of Charles Darwin’s illness in 2009, which coincided with the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth. There are many theories surrounding the illness that plagued Darwin, and I’ve read more than 30 diagnoses that have been proposed.

I’ve looked at his family history but most of my material has come from reading about the different symptoms he experienced, and reading the books that have been written about his illness.

Throughout his adult life, Darwin suffered from quite a long list of symptoms, both physical and psychological.

His physical symptoms included fatigue, skin boils, and he often vomited blood. The vomiting led to bruising on his lower oesophagus, dental decay, and skin pigmentation because he was losing so much salt and fluid.

In addition to all of this, he was also suffering definite symptoms of panic disorder. For example, he would wake up at night feeling terribly afraid, experiencing palpitations, sweating and shivering. Sometimes he was even convinced he was dying.

After some research, I thought he might have suffered from what is called Abdominal Migraine. It’s a disorder that causes headaches, abdominal pain and vomiting. When I looked further into it, however, it didn’t fit but it did lead me to Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome (CVS). This is a rare and poorly diagnosed disorder. It comes with some unusual characteristics that have different causes.

As I looked at each characteristic, the puzzle started to really come together. People with CVS suffer from motion sickness, including seasickness, which was one of Darwin’s biggest problems. CVS sufferers also experience attacks brought on by pleasurable events, what is referred to as positive stress.

Water exposure is a common way to provide CVS sufferers with relief. Darwin had tried many different types of treatments, but the only one that proved effective for him was exposure to water, what he called the ‘wondrous water cure’. I thought, ‘this is the answer!’

CVS is partly due to mitochondria. Given that mitochondria are inherited maternally, I began to look into Darwin’s family history, with a focus on his mother’s side. Lo and behold, his mother was ill. Many of his other relatives had poor health as well, including his mother’s siblings, his sister’s children and his grandmother.

His mother had one sibling, in particular, who suffered from mitochondrial encephalomyopathy, lactic acidosis and stroke-like episodes. This is known as MELAS, one of the first diseases recognised as being due to mitochondrial abnormality.

As far as I know, I’m the first to have suggested that Darwin had a mitochondrial disorder. My theory not only explains Darwin’s symptoms, but his family’s as well. The maternal inheritance goes back at least four generations. 

Mitochondria can produce entirely different symptoms in different people who inherit the same abnormality. This explains why they all suffered from varying symptoms, while still inheriting the same mitochondria abnormality.

As far as I know, I’m the first to have suggested that Darwin had a mitochondrial disorder. My theory not only explains Darwin’s symptoms, but his family’s as well. The maternal inheritance goes back at least four generations.

Darwin worried that his children had inherited his illness, too. However, this was not possible as mitochondria are passed down through females.

Also, symptoms due to mitochondrial abnormalities tend to worsen with age. While his children were sick during their younger years, their health improved as they aged. Darwin and his wife were first cousins, so the genetic consequences of inbreeding might explain some of the health issues his children experienced early on.

People wonder what importance lies in diagnosing Darwin’s mystery illness. They say, ‘why does it matter?’ There are many individuals with fundamental religious beliefs who deny evolution. A common argument they put forward is that Darwin’s symptoms were all caused by a psychiatric illness — he was psychologically flawed, and therefore his theory was psychologically flawed.

By clearly laying out the evidence that shows he suffered from a mitochondrial disorder, and was mentally competent, that argument is rendered mute.

Secondly, there are people today who are experiencing physical and psychological symptoms similar to Darwin. There are also damaging misconceptions surrounding people who suffer from such symptoms.

It’s important for these people to know that one of the most influential figures in history also suffered both the personal and societal hardships of having a disorder.

It demonstrates that every person has the potential to achieve some truly amazing things even if that person suffers from a mental illness, a physical illness or no illness at all.  ’


John Hayman’s thesis is titled: Diagnosing Darwin: Charles Darwin’s ‘Mystery Illness’.”

► My PhD is an irregular series in which The Citizen speaks with recent Melbourne University PhD graduates.