Dizziness, muscle spasms, vomiting, cramps, bloating, headaches, fainting, anxiety and flatulence. With this formidable list of symptoms it is amazing that Charles Darwin ever managed to haul himself out of his sick bed and put pen to paper, let alone compose arguably the most influential scientific theory ever proposed.
Not surprisingly, Darwin’s health became something of an obsession for the great biologist and he consulted numerous doctors in search of a cure. His letters – published online by the Darwin Correspondence Project – show that the remedies he tried bear a surprising resemblance to some modern dietary fads.
In 1865, his health was so poor
that for six months he was “able to do no scientific work”. For his troublesome belly, Dr Bence Jones put him on a strict diet, after which he reported that “there is an odd change in my stomach”.
Darwin found that taking “10 drops of muriatic acid twice a day (with Cayenne and ginger)” suited him “excellently”, a sentiment echoed by fans of the maple syrup, lemon and cayenne diet made famous by Beyonce Knowles. In the 19th Century, cayenne was used to treat gout and flatulence.
In another parallel, aspects
of the Atkins diet can be seen in Darwin’s preference for “a little game or fowl twice a day & eggs, omelet or maccaroni or cheese” over starch, although this was due to his fear of acid in his stomach rather than getting fat. It is not clear, however, whether Dr Jones entirely approved of Darwin’s aversion to carbohydrates as he recommended toast and sent him a “model diet with the Exception of a potatoe which is intended to tempt you” along with instructions on how to bake it. Because of the scanty diet, Darwin reports that he has “gained in walking power & my vomiting is immensely reduced. I have now hopes of again some day resuming scientific work, which is my sole enjoyment in life.”
The benefits of exercise are also clear in the letters, although rather than the gym, Dr Jones recommended riding a “rough pony” from “12 to luncheon time” so that he could be “shaken once daily to make the chemistry go on better.”
In a letter to T. H. Huxley, Darwin confides that Jones’ diet “half starved [him] to death and reduced [his] weight 15 lb”, although it failed to completely eliminate his daily bouts of late-afternoon flatulence.