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Charles Darwin's illness/Letters

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More information on Letters relevant to Charles Darwin's illness.

f1-f13 in the text of the letters indicates the location of various notes from the original source, the Darwin Correspondance Project.

Bold text indicates the passages that refer to his illness and treatment.


31 Mar, Letter 847

Letter 847 — Darwin, C. R. to Hooker, J. D., 31 Mar 1845

My dear Hooker

I hope your Book has arrived safely with your M.S.. Have you noticed in the fourth vol. of Wilkes, there is a short discussion on the Flora of the Sandwich Ids, & he considers it as of a very peculiar & confined character: I shall be curious to see the real scientific reports, if they turn out as trust worthy.—(f1) What a capital tour you have had, & how many great men, you have become acquainted with: by the way I have heard from Ehrenberg, who grieves much at your not having come, & says you would have been hospitably received at Berlin. He has returned me my M.S. & most goodnaturedly has written to Dieffenbach, from whom also I heard seven weeks ago assuring me that my &c &c shd arrive in a few days & laying all the blame on the Publishers; but nothing has arrived! I have many things to write about, but am determined to write nothing, which will require any answer from you, as I am sure your time must be now fully occupied & more than occupied; but I shall keep some memoranda hereafter to screw knowledge out of you. Nothing would do you so much good as a little vanity, & then you would not talk of collecting facts for others, when, say just what you please, I am sure no one could put them to better use than yourself.

I hope & trust you will find Edinburgh far pleasanter than you expect, though the lecturing must be a direful break in your Antarctic flora (of which there is a little recommendatory notice in L'Institut of last week):(f2) I shd think that Forbes(f3) was one of the cleverest men there; I have found him very civil in correspondence, but I am told he is as frigid as one of his own glaciers: & a capital theory I fully believe his to be.

You are very kind in your enquiries about my health; I have nothing to say about it, being always much the same, some days better & some worse.— I believe I have not had one whole day or rather night, without my stomach having been greatly disordered, during the last three years, & most days great prostration of strength: thank you for your kindness, many of my friends, I believe, think me a hypocondriac. How late shall you be in Edinburgh: I ask because I think I shall probably take a tour, for my unlucky stomach's sake, to the Eildon hills near Melrose, in September to see some appearances like the ‘parallel roads of Glen Roy’.—(f4) & perhaps I might go further on & see you in Edinburgh if there.— I see I have kept to my determination, in a highly praiseworthy manner, & asked you nothing which requires an answer— one of the subject I am curious to discuss hereafter with you—is the position, as a method of induction, in which morphology stands; it seems to me a very curious point.— I will order St Hilaires book;(f5) I have just finished three huge volumes by Is. St Hilaire on animal monsters, and a nasty curious subject it is.—(f6)

Farewell with all good wishes Ever yours | C. Darwin

N.B. You may see that I have dubbed you a Dr again, as you are to be a Professor: have I not done right?—


19 Mar, Letter 1234

Letter 1234 — Darwin, C. R. to Darwin, S. E., [19 Mar 1849]

Summary': Writes a detailed account of his treatment at J. M. Gully's hydropathy establishment at Malvern.

My dear Susan.

As you say you want my hydropathical diary, I will give it you(f1) —though tomorrow it is to change to a certain extent.— 1⁄4 before 7. get up, & am scrubbed with rough towel in cold water for 2 or 3 minutes, which after the few first days, made & makes me very like a lobster— I have a washerman, a very nice person, & he scrubs behind, whilst I scrub in front.— drink a tumbler of water & get my clothes on as quick as possible & walk for 20 minutes—(f2) I cd walk further, but I find it tires me afterwards— I like all this very much.— At same time I put on a compress, which is a broad wet folded linen covered by mackintosh & which is “refreshed”—ie dipt in cold water every 2 hours & I wear it all day, except for about 2 hours after midday dinner; I don't perceive much effect from this of any kind.— After my walk, shave & wash & get my breakfast, which was to have been exclusively toast with meat or egg, but he has allowed me a little milk to sop the stale toast in. At no time must I take any sugar, butter, spices tea bacon or anything good.—(f3) At 12 oclock I put my feet for 10 minutes in cold water with a little mustard & they are violently rubbed by my man; the coldness makes my feet ache much, but upon the whole my feet are certainly less cold than formerly.— Walk for 20 minutes & dine at one.— He has relaxed a little about my dinner & says I may try plain pudding, if I am sure it lessens sickness.—

After dinner lie down & try to go to sleep for one hour.— At 5 olock feet in cold water—drink cold water & walk as before— Supper same as breakfast at 6 oclock.— I have had much sickness this week, but certainly I have felt much stronger & the sickness has depressed me much less.— Tomorrow I am to be packed at 6 oclock A.M for 1 & 1⁄2 hour in Blanket, with hot bottle to my feet & then rubbed with cold dripping sheet;(f4) but I do not know anything about this.— I grieve to say that Dr Gully gives me homoœopathic medicines three times a day, which I take obediently without an atom of faith.—(f5) [1] I like Dr Gully much—he is certainly an able man: I have been struck with how many remarks he has made similar to those of my Father.—

He is very kind & attentive; but seems puzzled with my case—thinks my head or top of spinal chord cause of mischief—(f6) He has generously allowed me 6 pinches of snuff for all this week,(f7) which is my chief comfort except thinking all day of myself & prosing to Emma, who bless her old soul, thinks as much about me as I do even myself.— I am become perfectly indolent which I feel the oddest change of all to myself & this letter is the greatest mental effort done by me since coming here— My dearest sisters I wish I cd see you here.—(f8) I saw absolutely nothing of you at Down & never talked about my dear Father about whom it is now to me the sweetest pleasure to think, which I fear cannot be your case as yet.

My dears | Yours affectionly | C. D.

Perhaps Marianne & the Doctor wd like to see this.(f9)

Annie(f10) was telling Miss Thorley all her Papa had to do about the water cure & how he liked it. “And it makes Papa so angry”. Miss T. must have thought it a very odd effect. He said it did make him feel cross. Papa was present at this conversation(f11)

24 Mar, Letter 1235

Letter 1235 — Darwin, C. R. to Fox, W. D., 24 [Mar 1849] Summary:Reports progress with water-cure. Describes the treatment.

My dear Fox

As you took such very kind interest about me, & as I owe to so considerable extent my expedition to you, I must report progress. We came here this day fortnight & have got a very comfortable house, with a little field & wood opening on to the mountain, capital for the children to play in.—(f1) We shall stay here at least 2 months, ie to latter end or middle or possibly only to early part of May.— I much like & think highly of Dr Gully. He has been very cautious in his treatment & has even, had the charity to stint me only to six pinches of snuff daily.— Cold scrubbing in morning, 2 cold feet bath & compress on stomach is as yet the only treatment, besides change of diet &c.— I am, however to commence tomorrow a sweating process.— I am already certainly stronger & perhaps my stomach somewhat better.[1] I was in a much shattered condition before coming here; my hands were becoming tremulous & head often swimming.— I expect fully that the system will greatly benefit me, & certainly the regular Doctors cd do nothing.

We have a spare bed-room & shd be delighted to see you here, but I shd enjoy your visit more towards latter half of April, when I hope to be stronger & less absorbed with my eternal [short], walks bathings &c. all of which make me excessively tired in evening so that I am forced to go to bed at 81⁄2. The only disagreeable part as yet to me, has been the excessive irritation of skin which comes on every evening over whole body.—so that I cannot sit quiet one minute after six or seven oclock.— This no doubt will before long go off. Have you ever been here? It is a curious & nice place & in summer must be very pretty; we have had half our time foggy or hazy, but most fortunate in not having had any rain: I do hope you will come, & that you will find me a ruddy strong man. We have all our servants & governess here.—

My dear Fox | Yours most sincerely | C. Darwin

28 Mar, Letter 1236

Letter 1236 — Darwin, C. R. to Hooker, J. D., 28 Mar 1849

Summary Among other things he describes J. M. Gully's water-cure.

My dear Hooker

Your letter of the 13th of October has remained unanswered till this day! What an ungrateful return for a letter which interested me so much, & which contained so much & curious information. But I have had a bad winter. On the 13th of November my poor dear Father died & no one, who did not know him, would believe that a man above 83 years old, could have retained so tender & affectionate a disposition, with all his sagacity unclouded to the last. I was at the time so unwell that I was unable to travel which added to my misery. Indeed all this winter I have been bad enough, with dreadful vomiting every week, & my nervous system began to be affected, so that my hands trembled & head was often swimming. I was not able to do anything one day out of three,[1] & was altogether too dispirited to write to you or to do anything but what I was compelled.— I thought I was rapidly going the way of all flesh. Having heard, accidentally, of two persons who had received much benefit from the Water Cure, I got Dr Gully's book(f1) & made further enquiries, & at last started here, with wife, children & all our servants. We have taken a house for two month & have been here a fortnight. I am already a little stronger & now have had no vomiting for 10 days. Dr G. feels pretty sure he can do me good, which most certainly the regular Doctors could not. At present, I am heated by Spirit lamp till I stream with perspiration,(f2) & am then suddenly rubbed violently with towels dripping with cold water: have two cold feet-baths, & wear a wet compress all day on my stomach. I eat simply, dine at 1 oclock & take several short walks daily.[1] Even in first 8 days the treatment brought out an eruption all over my legs.[2] I mention all this to you, as being a medical man, you might possibly like to hear about it.— I feel certain that the Water Cure is no quackery.[1] — How I shall enjoy getting back to Down with renovated health, if such is to be my good fortune, & resuming the beloved Barnacles.— Now I hope that you will forgive me for my negligence in not having sooner answered your letter.—

I was uncommonly interested by the sketch you give of your intended grand expedition, from which I suppose you will soon be returning. How earnestly I hope that it may prove in every way successful. I received from your Father a few weeks ago your Galapagos papers(f3) & I have read them since being here. I really cannot express too strongly my admiration of the geographical discussion: to my judgment it is a perfect model what such a paper shd be: it took me four days to read & think over. How interesting the Flora of the Sandwich islands appears to be,(f4) how I wish there were materials for you to treat its flora, as you have done the Galapagos. In the Systematic paper I was rather disappointed in not finding general remarks on affinities, structure &c, such as you often give in conversation & such as Decandolle & St. Hilaire,(f5) introduce in almost all their papers & which make them interesting even to a non-Botanist. I have not yet succeeded in borrowing the vol. with your Coal Paper,(f6) & I grudged buying the whole volume; but I will & must get it, for as you know, there is no subject which interests me more than that inexplicable Coal Problem.— I have received Mr Hodgson's excellent pamphlets,(f7) & have forwarded them to Waterhouse & will write to Mr H. in a few days.— What a good fellow you were to take so much trouble in giving me so much information from H. on the crossing of animals &c. effect of climate. &c.— I shall be very curious sometime to read your observations on the fruit-trees of Europe.— Many thanks also for your news about poor dear old Falconer: I do hope he will not have any more illness: when you write remember me most kindly to him.— I see that you have been attending to the Geology of the mountains; I quite agree that the gneiss & mica-slate districts are the dullest of all. I believe that what you call strata are not really so, but analogous to the laminæ of clay-slate. I have developed this view in my Geolog. vol. of S. America,(f8) & it is held by some excellent continental geologists, though not adopted in England: Dan Sharpe, however, since I published this view maintains that it is correct.(f9) I wd wager that the so called strata of the mica-slate are parallel to the laminæ of the clay-slate, if such occurs in same neighbourhood. I may just mention, as you have been having analyses made of mould, that I lately read a Paper in Gardeners Chron. that potash is found to be volatilised during the usual process of incineration.—(f10)

I have really no news to tell you, for I was in London only once all this winter & have seen no one for an age. I have heard nothing of the Henslows, but in that quarter you will have full information. Sir Ch. Lyell is flourishing as President:(f11) he got Sir R. Peel & the Archbishop of Canterbury to attend the Anniversary Geolog Dinner.—(f12) I have not even seen Mrs Forbes, & altogether I daresay you know more London news than I do. You heard no doubt of the tremendous turmoil there was in Royal Soc.: the Naturalists beating the Physicists, with whom were most of the Geologists.(f13) Well my dear Hooker this is a dreadfully dull letter to send across the world, but such as it is, it must carry my most sincere wishes for your success.—

Your affectionate friend | C. Darwin

18 April, Letter 1240

Letter 1240 — Darwin, C. R. to Fox, W. D., 18 Apr [1849]

Summary: Continues to improve, but water-cure has produced "indolence and stagnation of mind".

My dear Fox

Many thanks for your most friendly note a fortnight ago. I did not write sooner, till I knew our plans more definitely. Dr G. now says we may return home at end of May (it will be on Friday 1st of June that we shall arrive, I hope at dear old Down) but that I shall have to go on with the Aqueous treatment for many months at home under his direction.— Our remaining here all May will, I hope give us a better chance of seeing you here, but your account of yourself & gigantic family(f1) shows that it is but a chance; nevertheless we shall hope for it—

I am very sorry to hear that you have not been very well this winter. With respect to myself I believe I am going on very well; but I am rather weary of my present inactive life & the Water Cure has the most extraordinary effect in producing indolence & stagnation of mind; till experiencing it, I cd not have believed it possible.— I now increase in weight, have escaped sickness for 30 days, which is thrice as long an interval, as I have had for last year;[1] & yesterday in 4 walks I managed seven miles! I am turned into a mere walking & eating machine.— Dr G. however finds he is obliged to treat me cautiously, & during last week all my treatment has been much relaxed. There are many patients here even already: last summer I hear he had 120!— He must be making an immense fortune.—(f2) Lady Wilmot lives here with her son Col. Wilmot;(f3) I have not called, for I was frightened at this great Dandy of a son: if it had been summer I wd have called to have seen the flower garden.— You need not send Athenæum(f4) or Glacier Paper(f5) till our return to Down.—

Yours very affectionately | C. Darwin

For auld langsyn I have looked for Beetles on the hills here, but cannot find one.—(f6)

6 May, Letter 1241

Letter 1241 — Darwin, C. R. to Henslow, J. S., 6 May 1849

Summary: Describes cold water cure he has been taking for two months at J. M. Gully's establishment.

My dear Henslow

Your kind note has been forwarded to me here. You will be surprised to hear that we all, children servants and all have been here for nearly two months. All last autumn and winter my health grew worse and worse; incessant sickness, tremulous hands and swimming head; I thought I was going the way of all flesh. Having heard of much success in some cases from the Cold Water Cure, I determined to give up all attempts to do anything and come here and put myself under Dr Gully. It has answered to a considerable extent: my sickness much checked and considerable strength gained. Dr G., moreover, (and I hear he rarely speaks confidently) tells me he has little doubt but that he can cure me, in the course of time, time however it will take. I have experienced enough to feel sure that the Cold Water Cure is a great powerful agent and upsetter of all constitutional habits. Talking of habits the cruel wretch has made me leave off snuff—that chief solace of life. We thank you most sincerely for your prompt and early invitation to Hitcham for Brit. Assoc. for 1850:(f1) if I am made well and strong, most gladly will I accept it; but as I have been hitherto, a drive every day of half-a-dozen miles would be more than I could stand with attending any of the sections. I intend going to Birmingham, if able; indeed I am bound to attempt it, for I am honoured beyond all measure in being one of the V.P.(f2) I am uncommonly glad you will be there; I fear, however, we shall not have any such charming trips as Nuneham and Dropmore.(f3) We shall stay here till at least June 1st., perhaps till July 1st., and I shall have to go on with the aqueous treatment at home for several more months. One most singular effect of the treatment is, that it induces in most people, and eminently in my case, the most complete stagnation of mind: I have ceased to think even of Barnacles!

I heard sometime since from Hooker; but the letter was so purely Geological that I did not suppose it would interest Miss Henslow: How capitally he seems to have succeeded in all his enterprises. You must be very busy now: I happened to be thinking the other day over the Gamlingay trip to the Lilies of the Valley:(f4) are those were delightful days(f5) when one had no such organ as a stomach, only a mouth and the masticating appurtenances. I am very much surprised at what you say, that men are beginning to work in earnest [at] Botany.(f6) What a loss it will be for Nat. History, that you have ceased to reside all the year in Cambridge.

My dear Henslow farewell. | Yours most affectionately | C. Darwin

I hope that Mrs. Henslow is much better: we are all flourishing.


4 Sept, Letter 1352

Letter 1352 — Darwin, C. R. to Fox, W. D., 4 Sept [1850]

Summary: Homeopathy excites his wrath even more than clairvoyance.

My dear Fox

I was much pleased to get your very agreeable letter with all its curious facts on the female sex & their hereditariness. Undoubtedly the periodical shedding of the nails almost by itself wd have convinced any naturalist that the individual was specifically distinct. I wonder whether the queries addressed to about the specific distinctions of the races of man are a reflexion from Agassiz's Lectures in the U.S. in which he has been maintaining the doctrine of several species,(f1) —much, I daresay, to the comfort of the slave-holding Southerns.— Your aphorism that “any remedy will cure any malady” contains, I do believe, profound truth,—whether applicable or not to the wondrous Water Cure I am not very sure.— The Water-Cure, however, keeps in high favour, & I go regularly on with douching &c &c:(f2) I am much in the same state as I have been for the last nine months, & not quite so brilliantly well as I was in the dead of last winter.(f3) To be as I am, though I never have my stomach right for 24 hours, is, compared to my state two years ago, of inestimable value.

My wife & all my children are well; & they, the children, are now seven in number; to what I am to bring up my four Boys, even already sorely perplexes me. My eldest boy(f4) is showing the hereditary principle, by a passion for collecting Lepidoptera. We are at present very full of the subject of schools; I cannot endure to think of sending my Boys to waste 7 or 8 years in making miserable Latin verses, & we have heard some good of Bruce Castle School, near Tottenham(f5) which is partly on the Fellenberg System,(f6) & is kept by a Brother of Rowland Hill of the Post-office, so that on Friday we are going to inspect it & the Boys.(f7) I feel that it is an awful experiment to depart from the usual course, however bad that course may be.— Have you, who have something of an omniscient tendency in you, ever heard anything of this school?—

You speak about Homœopathy; which is a subject which makes me more wrath, even than does Clair-voyance: clairvoyance so transcends belief, that one's ordinary faculties are put out of question, but in Homœopathy common sense & common observation come into play, & both these must go to the Dogs, if the infinetesimal doses have any effect whatever. How true is a remark I saw the other day by Quetelet, in respect to evidence of curative processes, viz that no one knows in disease what is the simple result of nothing being done, as a standard with which to compare Homœopathy & all other such things.(f8) It is a sad flaw, I cannot but think in my beloved Dr Gully, that he believes in everything— when his daughter was very ill, he had a clair-voyant girl to report on internal changes, a mesmerist to put her to sleep—an homœopathist, viz Dr Chapman;(f9) & himself as Hydropathist!(f10) & the girl recovered.—

My dear Fox, I do hope we shall sometime see you here again. Your affectionate friend | C. Darwin

By pure accident a bundle of Athenæums have been much delayed.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 The blue text in the letters above represent testament of Darwin's health in the context of:
    "just prior to coming to Dr. Gully, [Darwin] wrote that he was dying AND he was unable to work 1 in every 3 days." talk page comment from Dana
    This is used by Dana Ullman to conclude that:
    "Darwin experienced significant improvements in his health, even though Dr. Gully had not even begun the sweating part of the water-cure process, thereby suggesting that the early phases of water-cure and the initial homeopathic medicine that he was prescribed provided significant benefit for him."
    For further evidence of significant improvement in the first ten days, Dana Ullman points out that Darwin:
    "describes not having any nausea and vomiting for 30 days...and it goes on. Of greatest significance, there is no evidence that Darwin ever again complained about fainting spells, spots before his eyes, heart palpitations, or severe boils."
  2. This note refers to what homeopaths consider a possible "healing crisis" described in Darwin’s 'Letter 1236' as "the treatment brought out an eruption all over my legs". Homeopaths and other practitioners of natural medicine commonly refer to a “healing crisis,” an initial and temporary exacerbation of symptoms prior to significant relief of a chronic ailment. Skin symptoms, in particular, are considered to be externalizations of the disease process. Such exacerbations of symptoms suggest to a homeopath that a placebo response is unlikely. Citation for this?