The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice and Other Classic Essays on Science

By Peter Medawar | Go to book overview
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5
Darwin's illness

Charles Darwin was a sick man for the last forty of his seventythree years of life. His diaries tell the story of a man deep in the shadow of chronic illness -- gnawed at by gastric and intestinal pains, frightened by palpitations, weak and lethargic, often sick and shivery, a bad sleeper, and always an attentive student of his own woes. His complaints began about a year after his return from the great scientific adventures that occupied the five-year voyage of HMS Beagle, and they soon took on a fitfully recurrent pattern. Over the next few years, as he became progressively weaker, Darwin gave up his more energetic pursuits, including the geological field-work he had until then delighted in; and in 1842, when only thirty-three, he and his devoted wife Emma retired to a country house in Kent. Darwin left Down House seldom and England never, relying upon correspondence to keep himself up with scientific affairs, and in later years looking fearfully upon the hubbub that broke out after the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859.

Like many chronic invalids Darwin came to adopt a settled routine -- now a little walk, now a little rest, now a little reading -- and three or four hours' work a day was about all he could find energy for. Yet he looked well enough, and was very far from being disagreeable. Every account makes him out considerate and loving, and his granddaughter, Gwen Raverat, described him as affectionate, spontaneous and gay. Nor had he a feeble constitution. He had been an open-air man, strongly built, and at Cambridge a keen shot and sportsman. His records of the Beagle and subsequently its Master's show him resilient, tough and full

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