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Darwin's Illness$

Ralph Colp Jr.

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780813032313

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813032313.001.0001

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The Possibility of Adrenal Disease

The Possibility of Adrenal Disease

Chapter:
(p.166) 27 The Possibility of Adrenal Disease
Source:
Darwin's Illness
Author(s):

Ralph Colp Jr. M.D.

Publisher:
University Press of Florida
DOI:10.5744/florida/9780813032313.003.0027

Abstract and Keywords

Betsy King has suggested that Charles Darwin was ill because of a diminished function of the cortex of his adrenal gland, caused by his 1834 Chilean fever and its treatment with calomel and manifested by symptoms of hypoadrenalism, including hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Several serious medical objections to this diagnosis are presented. The role of hypoglycemia in his illness would never have been known because the occurrence of low blood sugar can be diagnosed only by chemical tests that were not available in Victorian times.

Keywords:   Charles Darwin, Betsy King, adrenal gland, Chilean fever, calomel, hypoadrenalism, hypoglycemia

Betsy King has suggested that Darwin was ill because of a diminished function of the cortex of his adrenal gland, caused by his 1834 Chilean fever and its treatment with calomel and manifested by symptoms of hypoadrenalism, including hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).1

There are several serious medical objections to this diagnosis. (1) The adrenal gland supports the body in situations of acute stress. Darwin experienced such a situation in his 1834 illness, which affected “every secretion” of his body.2 If his adrenal had been only partly available, his chances of surviving the illness would have been small. (2) If he survived with damaged adrenals, he would have had weakness and fatigue (major symptoms of hypoadrenalism), and he would not have been able to participate in the strenuous explorations of the Andean Mountains. (3) After his return to England he often recovered rapidly from his periods of fatigue and weakness, whereas if his adrenals had been impaired, his recovery would have been much slower. (4) Even in his most severe episodes of vomiting, he does not appear to have gone into shock—a physical state of low blood pressure, with cold extremities, disturbances of consciousness, and somnolence—whereas individuals with adrenal insufficiency, who also have vomiting, have a high risk of going into shock. (5) If his symptoms were caused by an organic deficiency of his adrenals, it does not seem likely that they would have improved in his later years.3

The role of hypoglycemia in his illness may never have been known because the occurrence of low blood sugar can be diagnosed only by chemical tests that were not available in Victorian times.

Notes:

(1.) King 1994, 47–48, 52–56.

(2.) Life and Letters, 1: 198.

(3.) Williams and Dluhy 1991, 1729–32.