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Solving the Mystery of Darwin’s Lifelong Illness

December 5, 2019

[ INTRO ] Charles Darwin’s five-year tour of the Southern
hemisphere on the HMS Beagle let him see the natural world in a new light, helping him
develop his theory of evolution by natural selection. But it didn’t provide any insights into
a much more personal mystery: what made him so ill. Darwin spent his entire life searching for
relief from an endless litany of recurring symptoms. And while his condition improved at least
somewhat towards the end of his life, he never figured out what made him so sick so often. That puzzle has fascinated scientists and
doctors in the decades since. They’ve combed over the symptoms and have
come up with more than 40 different diagnoses. And while there’s still no consensus, there
are a couple plausible answers, including several that suggest he got an unfortunate
genetic hand dealt to him by his mother. Darwin kept extensive health journals, applying
the same meticulous note-taking he used in science to his own health. The detailed documentation of his symptoms
has made diagnosing his condition a common challenge in the medical community. But Darwin suffered from such a wide range
of problems that it seems almost impossible to pinpoint a single, root cause. For example, he was said to have a “weak
stomach” because he was so quick to puke. And he had bouts of fatigue that went way
beyond exhaustion—he’d spend days “most terribly knocked up,” as he phrased it. But at various times in his life, he also
experienced headaches, severe skin conditions, chest pains, trembling and numbness in his
hands, dizziness, shivering, visual disturbances, backaches, psychological symptoms, and more. One of the earliest guesses was that his famous
voyage was to blame, as he may have contracted Chagas disease—a parasitic infection spread
by bug bite. But the idea has been strongly rebutted because
no one else on the HMS Beagle got it, and Darwin didn’t show the classic physical signs
of disease, like an enlarged esophagus or colon, in any of the doctor examinations he
received throughout his life. Also, Darwin experienced some of his symptoms
before he set sail. Other doctors have proposed that his troubles
were psychosomatic: physical symptoms arising from mental illness. He did have anxiety and depression, and some
of his episodes coincided with periods of stress. But many didn’t, and most experts say mental
illness alone can’t explain all of his symptoms, especially given the severity and sheer number
of problems he had. One diagnosis that fits pretty well is a poorly
understood condition called CVS, which stands for a medical condition called , not the pharmacy
chain. This is exactly as unpleasant as it sounds:
sufferers experience periodically recurring bouts of severe nausea and vomiting, which
is definitely something “weak stomached” Darwin was all too familiar with. CVS patients have a higher than normal chance
of anxiety disorders and depression, migraines, and certain nervous system disorders that
might explain Darwin’s mysterious episodes of numbness, partial paralysis, and distorted
vision. They also tend to have severe motion sickness,
which describes Darwin’s experience on the Beagle to a tee. It’s hard to believe the poor guy spent
a year and a half of that five year voyage at sea. Another point in CVS’s favor is the fact
that patients often seek out water during an episode—either drinking it in excess
or spending long periods of time in baths or showers. Doctors aren’t sure why this helps, but
more than half of patients report it eases their symptoms. And Darwin, too, seemed relieved by water:
he noted improvement when treated with a popular remedy at the time called the “water cure,”
which involved cold foot baths, scrubbing with wet towels, and cold compresses. The exact cause of cyclic vomiting syndrome
is unknown, but it has been linked to abnormalities in mitochondrial DNA—which would also explain
why his doctors didn’t diagnose it. Mitochondria produce the universal fuel of
cells. That means mitochondrial diseases can affect
almost any organ in your body and can cause an enormous array of symptoms. But the first mitochondrial disease wasn’t
identified until the 1950s, more than seven decades after Darwin’s death, so his doctors
couldn’t have suspected one might be to blame. And there are unique features to these diseases
make them really hard to diagnose without specific genetic tests. You can’t simply track them in families
unless you know what you’re looking for, for example, because they don’t obey the classical
rules of inheritance. That’s because mitochondria only come from
your biological mother—they’re they’re passed down through eggs. And they have their own genome which encodes
for many of their essential parts, so abnormalities in mitochondrial DNA can cause these cellular
powerhouses to falter. But each cell in your body can have hundreds
to thousands of them, some of which might be normal and some that could be abnormal. Since it’s possible to have different ratios
of sick and healthy mitochondria in different cells, the same disease can produce a wide
range of symptoms in a single person. They can even present differently in identical
twins, let alone different people. If Darwin’s doctors had known about these
conditions, they might have looked to see if any of his family on his mother’s side
exhibited signs. Interestingly enough, Darwin’s mother and
her brother both also suffered from illnesses with long lists of symptoms. And his mother’s youngest sister died when
she was only eight from an illness that strongly resembles another mitochondrial disorder called
MELAS syndrome, which stands for ‘mitochondrial encephalomyopathy, lactic acidosis, and stroke-like
episodes.’ If mitochondrial diseases did run in the family
on his mother’s side, it would make sense that Darwin could have inherited one. And MELAS might fit the bill even better than
CVS, because the stroke-like episodes in its name would explain the periodic episodes of
partial paralysis, memory loss, and difficulty or inability to speak that Darwin began to
experience in his 50s. MELAS also causes a build-up of lactic acid
in the bloodstream which can cause severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and fatigue, all
of which Darwin frequently experienced. Of course, we may never really solve the mystery
of Darwin’s illness. And it may be that more than one condition
was to blame, which would mean doctors are mistakenly shoehorning too many symptoms into
one diagnosis. The only way to know for sure if any of these
hypotheses is right would be to exhume his body for tests—which seems a bit extreme. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow,
a Complexly production. If you want to learn more about Darwin’s
transformative theory and how he developed it, you might like the episodes on our sister
channel, Crash Course, on evolution. [ OUTRO ]


  • Reply acegeek April 6, 2018 at 8:20 pm

    Sounds a lot like untreated Hyperparathyroism.

  • Reply jessica b April 7, 2018 at 9:03 am

    B12 deficiency? A majority of those symptoms sound like mine, along with my calcium/vitamin D deficiency /:

  • Reply Akubona April 7, 2018 at 9:45 am

    Easy….. Call House…. Duh! You''re welcome SciShow.

  • Reply Liam Stanton April 7, 2018 at 7:20 pm

    Didn't Hippocrates say something about disease and the gut?

  • Reply Gaurav Manwani April 7, 2018 at 9:20 pm

    I have these symptoms too…

  • Reply 83Mike17 April 7, 2018 at 9:55 pm

    I'm just going to avoid CVS. I'll just do my shopping at Walgreens instead?

  • Reply BobEckert56 April 8, 2018 at 7:49 am

    Excellent episode!

  • Reply J Johnson April 8, 2018 at 7:39 pm

    Why do geologists believe the Earth's inner core is solid?

  • Reply frozenstrawbs April 9, 2018 at 10:18 am

    i have cvs its pretty brutal

  • Reply Not Your Everyday Timelord April 9, 2018 at 11:46 pm


  • Reply seriousbees April 10, 2018 at 1:37 am

    tbh these are the vague kind of symptoms that are pretty common in people with anxiety. i am a bit sceptical of these obscure diagnoses

  • Reply An Ano April 10, 2018 at 3:02 am

    seems quite obvious to me; ocd and hypochondria induced anxiety, anxiety induced auto-imune conditions.
    "mental illness alone cant explain the severity and sheer number of problems he had" never seen scishow show this much ignorance

  • Reply Toronto Bud April 10, 2018 at 4:22 am

    Darwin’s disease : being a big fuckin cry baby

  • Reply Shishilan Pasalan April 10, 2018 at 3:08 pm

    M I T O C H O N D R I A T H E P O W E R H O U S E O F T H E C E L L

  • Reply Finn Cousins April 13, 2018 at 9:07 pm

    Is coeliac disease possible? Some of the symptoms resemble that

  • Reply airborneexplorer April 15, 2018 at 12:47 am

    Brain tumor. Dude was Insane

  • Reply cosmoruski April 16, 2018 at 5:44 pm

    JUSUS made him suffer, because Darwin was packting with the devil!

  • Reply victoria forberg April 17, 2018 at 1:15 am

    Sounds like multiple sclerosis

  • Reply sBeDs April 17, 2018 at 3:02 am

    why would exuming his body be so extreme??? we're exuming peoples to put them into museum all the time, the only difference is that he lived more recently…

  • Reply Ken O April 17, 2018 at 8:14 am

    Might his diet be a contributing factor? -that he, as part of a group of people who believed it was a good idea to eat as many varieties of animals as one could, would eat the animals after studying them (on his travels).

  • Reply Anthony Deng April 17, 2018 at 2:53 pm

    Encephalomyopathy Lactic Acidosis

  • Reply Meganopteryx April 17, 2018 at 4:45 pm


  • Reply Chay April 18, 2018 at 11:15 am

    What's it with scientists and depression

  • Reply 4one14 April 19, 2018 at 2:48 pm

    I have a connective tissue disease called Ehler-Danlos that can cause up to 160 other secondary disease/disorders, almost all of them similar to what Darwin experienced. It is degenerative and is also very often missed by doctors as there are such shifting and nebulous symptoms mix messing up nearly every system with connective tissues.

  • Reply Eric Pham April 20, 2018 at 9:19 pm

    It's a shame that such a brilliant scientist was inflicted terrible and mysterious illness.

  • Reply Belial Of Eden April 21, 2018 at 4:53 am


  • Reply Remedy April 24, 2018 at 1:32 am

    you might say he won a "Darwin Award" B) YYYYEEEAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

  • Reply Peldyn - Life with Cats April 26, 2018 at 2:43 am

    Those are the same symptoms my husband has. Doctors have no clue what is wrong

  • Reply Jennifer Wilson April 26, 2018 at 4:57 pm

    Poor guy, yet he pushed on with his life and career.

  • Reply A EJ April 27, 2018 at 4:25 am

    lmao i have cyclic vomiting syndrome not a fun time lemme tell ya

  • Reply cunning wolf April 27, 2018 at 3:16 pm

    i love how i jokingly said Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome (because i have it) in the begging of the video just for it to be brought up

  • Reply Anji Thoren April 28, 2018 at 9:55 pm

    I have CVS its no fun 🙁

  • Reply TDC April 29, 2018 at 6:11 am

    The ultimate irony

  • Reply Samantha Stuessel April 30, 2018 at 2:49 am

    Ugh, I have CVS, miserable! I have to be hospitalized whenever I get it. He sounds like he has the same issues as me. I was born disabled with all the symptoms he has (that were said here) plus a lot more and my issues are mitochondrial in origin. Interesting to know.

  • Reply EclipseWolf Is in WolfClan and Unlimitedclan April 30, 2018 at 5:34 am

    Hopefully he did not get poised by BEPIS™. No he didn't get poised by BEPIS™. It not exist
    back then.

  • Reply Gribbo9999 May 13, 2018 at 2:29 pm

    Might be a bit extreme to dig him up but I think Mr Darwin would be fascinated to know the results and would like us to know too .

  • Reply Amandad May 20, 2018 at 9:40 pm

    Well this explains why it took so long for him to publish his famous book on evolution….of course with the factor of the time it took to research the Galapagos

  • Reply أتابع الناصري. Keillor,Christopher May 26, 2018 at 4:10 am

    Psychological problems people think that his little theory is good the guy was a nut ball and people want to follow them wholeheartedly kind of strange just saying

  • Reply Stacy Spoonley June 1, 2018 at 1:15 am

    Some of us need IV Fluids regularly and a gastric #pacemaker

  • Reply Stacy Spoonley June 1, 2018 at 1:16 am

    And #TIA events

  • Reply Hunter Lane Smith June 2, 2018 at 12:20 am

    I know no one cares, but I have BAD CVS. It sucks… Like really bad. Weeks out of school, constant vomiting, bad things like that.

    So, remember to be glad that you don’t have it.

  • Reply Jscthegamer June 2, 2018 at 2:35 am

    That’s gotta hurt probably he got farted on by my dad (his farts stink like sulfur)

  • Reply shannon clark June 3, 2018 at 1:18 pm

    What if he was just a hypochondriac and made up this huge lie that medics have been trolled by for years ?

  • Reply Rob Wisdom June 3, 2018 at 8:33 pm

    Lucky me darwin solved my life long illnesses

  • Reply FaceAche June 3, 2018 at 8:33 pm

    Maybe he suffered from fibromyalgia??

  • Reply FaceAche June 3, 2018 at 8:38 pm

    Now wonder he was obsessed with natural selection because he was a living paradox?

  • Reply kskits ._ June 22, 2018 at 5:18 am

    Why are all the intelligent and inventive people genetically, physically, or mentally screwed up/ill?

  • Reply Lord Dice X June 27, 2018 at 3:12 am

    Lyme disease and munchausen syndrome. – Dr. X (Sorry, I'm a doctor of religious studies though) ??

  • Reply Fritzmkvl July 24, 2018 at 1:08 pm

    Lupus maybe?

  • Reply LoveuGAGAforever August 2, 2018 at 3:50 pm


  • Reply Hypatia4242 August 6, 2018 at 12:07 am

    Why can't we test his descendants for similar diseases?

  • Reply Maxim Motyshen August 13, 2018 at 2:32 pm

    To me, it's more likely to be an autoimmune disorder. Many people across the world suffer from such a wide array of symptoms due to their immune systems attacking their own bodies.

  • Reply Manchester Chris August 17, 2018 at 12:35 am


  • Reply Prakash Likhitkar August 18, 2018 at 3:32 pm

    I have the answer. He was a Hypochondriac.

  • Reply truedragn yt September 29, 2018 at 11:03 am

    I thought of a mild sunlight allergy but these symptoms are too vague. Every disease has these symptoms

  • Reply Joe Carpenter September 30, 2018 at 2:23 am

    "Which seems a bit extreme." I'm not sure. I think that sounds like something Darwin would appreciate if he were still around.

  • Reply bluestrife28 October 1, 2018 at 11:35 am

    His voice is so soothing. I think ima binge Michael vids next time I need to relax and learn.

  • Reply Michael Fitzpatrick October 12, 2018 at 8:16 pm

    It's not lupus!

  • Reply Jake Guard October 24, 2018 at 11:08 pm

    I've got the same symptoms lmao

  • Reply Princess YuBeace October 29, 2018 at 8:45 pm

    First thing I thought of was Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, I have that myself. It's highly likely that that's a mitochondial disease as well.

  • Reply Shrimp Bisque October 31, 2018 at 6:36 am

    You'd think if he had a weak stomach he wouldn't exacerbate it by trying to EAT ONE OF EVERY NEW ANIMAL HE DOCUMENTED.

  • Reply Cat Loving Trio November 4, 2018 at 6:22 am

    Seriously, I think he had a genetically weak immune system. And a lot of chronic illnesses.

  • Reply DJiMMa November 11, 2018 at 12:22 am

    I had a strange dream about Darwin once, I was on his death bed and I was moping his head with cloth and he died and I was telling him to fly into the light, it was a very vivid dream

  • Reply Xedius December 26, 2018 at 5:55 am

    Daequan should watch this!

  • Reply Jace Wallace December 28, 2018 at 9:58 pm

    What made him so ill? Maybe his SICK theories on evolution.

  • Reply tigerheaddude January 14, 2019 at 11:15 pm

    Lupus, it's always lupus

  • Reply The Flaine February 4, 2019 at 6:56 am

    I think he may have been a hypochondriac. I have a relative who's always complaining about how sick they are, and they exadurate the severity of every slight ache, pain, and secretion their body has in elaborate details that I often wish they didn't. And like Darwin, my hypochondriatic relative suffers from anxiety and depression.

  • Reply Weird Al Spank a Bitch February 6, 2019 at 11:44 pm

    Diverticulitis and migraines maybe? My mom has most of these symptoms and those are what are causing them in her.

  • Reply Rosa Burton February 8, 2019 at 6:26 pm

    Dawin did a lot

  • Reply Nick Thompson March 4, 2019 at 8:33 pm

    Proof that Wallgreens is better.

  • Reply Darwinian Life March 15, 2019 at 4:52 pm

    He also had bad hearing right throughout his life, so that’s probably yet another symptom of it.

  • Reply Nicholas Brooks April 1, 2019 at 2:57 am


  • Reply Robocatpat April 5, 2019 at 5:14 pm

    Wow, this video helped determine the diagnosis of a friend who has suffered from CVS since childhood. For years we just assumed it was stress and never looked into treatment! Thanks, SciShow!

  • Reply Fred Bach April 6, 2019 at 3:50 pm

    Couldn't happen to a nicer guy….

  • Reply Baruch Ben-David April 7, 2019 at 9:15 pm

    If they can't track it down to a single root cause, then maybe there were more than one cause.
    He worked with dead animals which had to be preserved. Some of those chemicals are highly toxic; he might have been poisoned over time.

  • Reply Eddies blacksmithing April 11, 2019 at 2:56 am

    He made war with God. And lost

  • Reply M12GProductions April 11, 2019 at 1:04 pm

    HMS Beagle; best name for a ship, ever.

  • Reply Daven Duckworth April 14, 2019 at 12:17 am

    He was alive. That was his problem. Everyone experiences all of those things over the course of a 70+ year life. He just recorded all of his issues on paper. Water makes it better? He was thirsty.

  • Reply MtnTow April 30, 2019 at 5:02 am

    Sounds like crack or meth.

    Seriously though. Addiction cycles ive seen look a lot like that.

    Im sure Darwin would dig our current science.

  • Reply king james488 April 30, 2019 at 11:26 pm

    he had darwinism…

  • Reply king james488 May 1, 2019 at 12:27 am

    don't you think he'd want his remains studied for science? like… if anyone would.

  • Reply Matheus da Silva Nunes May 20, 2019 at 11:12 pm

    Poor guy, creates natural selection theory and gets killed by a stupid bug (Chagas disease).

  • Reply altareggo June 18, 2019 at 7:42 pm

    That's what you get for defying Gawd and bringing forth the Satanic Theory of Evilution……

  • Reply Jacob Masten July 3, 2019 at 7:16 pm

    Poor Darwin

  • Reply Mojos Bigstick July 9, 2019 at 2:18 am

    Does he not have living relatives in the maternal line?

  • Reply Taylor Vance August 21, 2019 at 9:04 pm

    I don't think that sounds extreme at all actually…. I think it would be cool…

  • Reply Naomi August 24, 2019 at 6:01 am

    Not extreme! But wouldn't his body and organs have completely deteriorated by now? If they can get some information from what's left. Go for it. What's to lose.

  • Reply Douglas K. Young September 10, 2019 at 4:45 am

    Psychosomatic diagnoses are as incompetent and uninformative as blaming demons. Darwin might have been fortunate to have avoided such current medical arrogance.

  • Reply Gordon Marshall October 9, 2019 at 12:26 am

    That's it, that what I have I just know it. I have all of those symptoms, CVS

  • Reply Red Leach October 15, 2019 at 11:06 am

    "It seems extreme" to resume his body for science? I think the man would applaud, and it may help someone currently experiencing the same symptoms, or someone in the future.

  • Reply Bo Reed October 16, 2019 at 1:38 am

    He was an addict !?

  • Reply Eduard Qualls October 16, 2019 at 3:54 pm

    Scientists: We extracted the DNA from this mammoth cell's nucleus successfully, so now we're going to clone it!
    Mitochondria: Oh, yeah? Hold my beer.

  • Reply Hayden Pulchinski November 4, 2019 at 7:26 am

    maybe he just drank too much wine

  • Reply robert walton November 12, 2019 at 2:34 am

    Tapeworms. I could have remedied him with a box of Bob Martin's wormers.

  • Reply Bipolartorecovery November 16, 2019 at 9:46 am

    What about hnpp?

  • Reply Crystal Dragon November 21, 2019 at 9:49 am

    I have cvs and when he listen the symptoms I thought to myself “huh that sounds awful familiar” ?

  • Reply peter dollins November 24, 2019 at 10:40 pm

    Sea sickness? Can be hell. At least on his voyages. Then that had weakened him?

  • Reply Henry McGuinness Guitar November 25, 2019 at 11:11 am

    Fascinating. Excellent video

  • Reply Patrick Green November 26, 2019 at 1:58 pm

    tbh, who fkn cares

  • Reply Claudio Saltara November 27, 2019 at 6:55 pm

    He probably was an hypochondriac, a severe one. I knew of an other person that was like that
    with some variations, my mother. Toward the end she was better but senility set in.

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