To most, Charles Darwin was an adventuresome 19th century naturalist whose theory of evolution shook the scientific world.
But scholars have long known about another Darwin, haunted by mysterious maladies not long after he returned to England after his famous voyage aboard the HMS Beagle in the 1830s.
In the Jan. 8 Journal of the American Medical Assn., two doctors offer a possible posthumous diagnosis: panic disorder, a common and often treatable form of anxiety. And, they suggest, it may actually have helped make him a pioneer.
“From the writings of Darwin himself, as well as biographical materials, we conclude that he may have suffered from panic disorder with agoraphobia,” a fear of open spaces, wrote Thomas J. Barloon, a radiologist, and Russell Noyes, a psychiatrist. Both are at the University of Iowa College of Medicine in Iowa City.
Panic disorder is a chronic mental illness characterized by sudden attacks of fear, accompanied by a variety of physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, dizziness, trembling and intestinal distress--all symptoms Darwin himself described in his various writings, the authors wrote.
It can be treated with psychotherapy and medication.
“His illness had its onset at the age of 28 years, which is typical for panic,” they wrote. “Events, such as formulation of his evolutionary theory, which he feared would bring him into conflict with the British scientific establishment, may have contributed to the onset of his symptoms.”
Darwin proposed that humankind was the product of a slow, evolutionary process from early forms of life. His theory triggered a furor because it countered the traditional Christian belief that God created the world and its all creatures in six days.
The Iowa doctors dismiss earlier ideas on what may have ailed Darwin, such as Chagas disease, which some have suggested he may have contracted after being bitten by an infected tropical insect during his travels in the Pacific and South America.
“Darwin experienced numerous partial exacerbations and remissions that would be unusual in the case of Chagas disease,” they wrote.
Other theories about depression and hypochondria also don’t explain the variety of symptoms afflicting Darwin, they said.
In all, he suffered from nine of 13 symptoms of panic disorder listed in a diagnostic manual for mental health professionals, Barloon and Noyes said.
His symptoms made him afraid to go anywhere and interfered with his work and social life, they said.
Nevertheless, Darwin married, fathered 10 children and lived until age 73. He also wrote “On the Origin of Species” over 22 years.
Would Darwin have been even more prolific if he’d been properly diagnosed and treated? The authors don’t attempt to answer that question.
Instead, they write that he may actually have benefited:
“Had it not been for this illness, his theory of evolution might not have become the all-consuming passion that produced ‘On the Origin of Species.’ ”