CBC Digital Archives

Diagnosing Darwin

The year 1809 was remarkable for producing figures of great historical importance, including Lincoln, Chopin, Poe, Braille, Tennyson and many others. But no other figure produced as dramatic an effect on society as the English naturalist Charles Darwin. His groundbreaking theory of evolution had a major impact on religion, education, history and our conception of humankind. Now, 200 years after his birth and 150 years since the publication of The Origin of Species, the CBC Digital Archives looks at the history of Darwin, his controversial theory and the ways in which his thoughts still affect the world.

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Before Charles Darwin embarked on his famous sea voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, he was a robust young man who excelled in running and other outdoor activities. Yet from 1837 until his death, he was a chronic invalid, laid low by a variety of medical problems. Despite that, he worked as a self-taught zoologist and botanist who wrote 16 books and continued to publish scientific works up until the year before his death. In this 1997 clip, a U.S. researcher offers a long-overdue diagnosis of Darwin's medical problems.
• Another theory on Charles Darwin's ill health is that he had Chagas' disease, a tropical parasitic disease that can cause heart disease and intestinal malformation. He did suffer several bouts of illness on the Beagle, and eventually died of a heart attack at age 73. • Darwin felt certain he had heart problems from early in life. His diary records that, even at age 22, he was "troubled with palpitations and pain about the heart ... (and) was convinced I had heart disease." He did not seek treatment for the ailment since he feared a doctor would forbid him from taking his trip aboard the Beagle.

• Although a controversial figure due to his theory of evolution, Darwin was widely mourned after his death on April 19, 1882. In an article published May 13, 1882, The Globe and Mail reported "In England everybody one met had a sympathetic and admiring word for the memory of Charles Darwin, the great and gentle philosopher who died so recently."

• Darwin was buried at Westminster Abbey in London, an honour granted to only some highly respected Britons. Darwin's tomb lies next to scientist Sir John Herschel and a few feet away from Sir Isaac Newton.

• Darwin was an agnostic, which made his burial in the abbey unusual. But in a memorial sermon preached soon after his funeral, Harvey Goodwin, the Bishop of Carlisle, said "I think that the interment of the remains of Mr. Darwin in Westminster Abbey is in accordance with the judgment of the wisest of his countrymen ... It would have been unfortunate if anything had occurred to give weight and currency to the foolish notion which some have diligently propagated, but for which Mr. Darwin was not responsible, that there is a necessary conflict between a knowledge of nature and a belief in God."

Medium: Radio
Program: As It Happens
Broadcast Date: March 12, 1997
Guest(s): Tom Barloon
Host: Barbara Budd
Interviewer: Michael Enright
Duration: 6:51

Last updated: February 8, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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