Book Review - To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin, by Ralph Colp Jr, M.D., The Univ. of Chicago Press, 1977 --

Book Review - Darwin's Illness, by Ralph Colp, Jr. M.D., Florida University Press, 2008

by John A. Speyrer

"The history of man for nine months preceding his birth would probably, be far more
interesting, and contain events of greater moment, than all the threescore
and ten years that follow it."

---Samuel Taylor Coleridge, (1840)

While glancing through older copies of the Primal Institute Newsletter, I read a cogent observation by Nicholas Barton. These book reviews of Darwin's illnesses represent my attempt to begin remedying the lapse which Barton correctly observed. His words are from the newsletter's October, 1979 issue.

Barton titled his piece: Biographers' Amnesia. He wrote, "A quick survey of the biographies and autobiographers on my bookshelf at home reveals that the single most influential and formative event in the subjects' lives is given no more than two lines of cursory treatment. It is usually presented simply as a calendar record.

The event is birth. I venture that these considerable lapses on the part of biographers will be less and less frequent in the coming years as the knowledge provided by the likes of Janov and Leboyer becomes more and more widespread."

While the optimal source for material for such a psychohistorical attempt including how one's birth influenced one's life decisions would be autobiographical, compiled after decades (in some cases) of regressive re-livings encompassing one's birth traumas. A second, but less useful source, would be from hospital birth records of known traumas, compared to childhood and later symptoms. Another useful source would be personality characteristics known by experts to be typical in those with specifically related physical and psychological birth traumas. Many birth injuries and intrauterine traumas will not be in hospital records as they will be unknown by the subject and staff which participated in the delivery. At the time of occurrence these slight traumas would not be considered by the medical staff important enough to record, but nonetheless would be good sources of evidence for a future biography author. Slight injuries may also be intentially under-emphasized or omitted to reduce insurance claims of negligence -- a present-day bane of obstetricians. All of these factors, and others, may combine to reduce available information about pre- and peri-natal traumas

Psychiatrist by profession and psychohistorian by avocation, Ralph Colp, Jr has written two books about the strange illnesses of Darwin. Dr. Colp was the son of a distinguished but "emotionally distant" physician father, and died of prostate cancer in 2008, the day before his 84th birthday during the bicentennial year of the birth of the subject of his interest.

Dr. Colp, in a sense, paralleled the relationship between himself and his father as had Charles Darwin. Both had physician fathers, although Cope's parents had divorced when he was quite young. "Throughout his entire life, he insisted on being called Ralph Colp Jr., despite being a distinguished man in his own right." Many of his writings, which totaled over one hundred, were about the scientific contributions of Charles Darwin. The source of this information is from: -- Paul Elovitz, Psychohistory News, Newsletter of the International Psychohistorical Association, Vol, 27, No 1, Winter, 2009.

The only specific reference made to Charles Darwin's possible birth trauma appears in the first of Dr. Colp's two books, which examine the possible source of Darwin's many medical symptoms. In, To be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin, a "Dr. Herman is quoted as suggesting that Darwin's November-December 1831, Plymouth illness was caused by the reactivation of the old "birth trauma" and the old "fear of death...." - Imre Hermann "Charles Darwin," Imago 13 (1927): pp. 69-72. (To be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin, p. 122, Ralph Colp, Jr.)

Upon finding this information, I searched the web for any additional information about Dr. Herman and how he had arrived at his conclusion. There was not much to be found. Herman was a long lived Hungarian neurologist and psychoanalyst (1889-1984). I located the German reference on the internet. The article, "Charles Darwin" is contained in a magazine dedicated to application of psychoanalysis to die Geisteswissenschaften ( Imago: Zeitschrift für Anwendung der Psychoanalyse auf die Geisteswissenschaften) Herman was a progenitor of object-relations theory (

Since I had hit a dead end in finding any direct references to Dr. Herman's theory of the origins of Darwin's birth traumas, I had to fall back on relating the purported psychosomatic ailments described in Darwin's life in an attempt to fill in the information about the "most influential and formidable event" which Nick Barton writes, should be emphasized.

Theoretical knowledge provided by the experts in the field of analysis of regressive psychotherapies, Drs. Arthur Janov, and Stanislav Grof will be used to fill in what at least, could be a theoretical explanation and may, have related to Charles Darwin's theorized birth problems.

As far as I know, German psychologist Otto Rank and the Czech-American psychiatrist Stanislav Grof were the first to theorize that all psychophysiological symptoms are mostly derived from the trauma of birth. But Grof went further than that when he wrote,

"Of particular interest and importance is the observation from deep experiential work that the primary driving forces behind all psychosomatic manifestations are not psychological traumas. What plays the crucial role in their genesis are unassimilated and unintegrated physical traumas, such as the memory of the discomfort associated with childhood diseases, operations, injuries or near drowning." (Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research (2000), p. 129)

Grof believes that there exists "clear evidence that postnatal psychological traumas, in and of themselves, are not sufficient to account for the development of emotional disorder. This is also true, even to a much greater extent, for psychosomatic symptoms and disorders." He feels that the traumas' effects are not proportional to its cause and that it would take an intense severe physical cause to have a severe physical effect as is seen in many psychosomatic maladies. He dismisses the theories of the psychoanalytic school which felt that a +1 negative emotion could result in a disproportionate +10 psychophysiological organic change in the body. (ibid., p. 127) Such explanations he deems to be "superficial" and "unconvincing."

If Grof is correct, the severe symptoms suffered by Charles Darwin would have to be shown to have been psychophysiological. They would point to his having had early severe physical trauma(s), most probably birth trauma, since the traumas of birth do result in a multiplicity of symptoms as described by therapists and patients in primal-oriented therapy, holotropic breathwork and other deeply regressive psychotherapies.

Darwin's illness was considered "bizarre" and "mysterious" by his contemporaries and perhaps even more so by his early biographers but, since then, much has been learned about the cause of psychosomatic maladies after the early theories had surfaced. Darwin kept a detailed diary of his various symptoms, something a severe hypochrondriac would be prone to do. He was anti-social and subject to many physical and emotional complaints, each seemingly related to the other.

Other than a mention, the two books of Dr. Colp contain little information about the major events in Darwin's life as the author is true to his objectives, which is to account for Darwin's medical history, although a few words are written about his personal biographical milestones. This gives us a lead in considering if the biographical events are related to his multiplical psychophysiological illnesses. (Colp, To Be An Invalid)

Darwin's invalid mother had died when he was eight. Uninterested in school, a hobby of collecting wildlife specimens (mostly insects) from youth continued all of his life.

Dr. Colp writes in, Dawin's Illness, that in his youth Darwin experienced "violent fatigues" caused by mental stresses, parasthesias of his hands resulting from unknown stresses and/or allergies." Most of these disturbances were of brief duration and did not seriously interfere with his patterns of living and working.

Darwin's life and family were closely involved in medicine as two members of his immediate family were physicians. He entered medical school but soon dropped out, distressed by the suffering patients and his witnessing their painful surgeries. The surgeries were unpleasant events, as this was before the age of anesthesia.

During a scientific expedition - an investigatory cruise off of the coast of South America he examined exotic flora and fauna which he took onboard the ship, Beagle and brought back to England. He was uncomfortable in being consigned to quarters which he felt did not provide enough room. He complained about the "smallness of ship's quarters," (Colp, To Be An Invalid, p. 9). On the ship, he suffered palpitations of the heart, gastric upsets and headaches. (ibid., p. 122)

He had the essentials of his theory of evolution mapped out decades before it was first published in 1859, but he hesitated in publishing his theories on the origin of species as he feared the furor its publication would provoke in conservative Victorian England. When it was finally published, much to his discomfort, the anticipated furor did erupt.

Five days before his marriage he had suffered from severe headaches during which time he wrote his fiance that he feared would not stop so they could get married. (ibid., Darwin's Illness, p. 20). His marriage was happy as the perfect patient had seemingly married the perfect nurse. But his various maladies soon worsened after marriage as he began experiencing endless vomiting, periodic anxieties, worries, stomach pains, eczemic attacks; violent shivering, tremblings, fears of death, swimming of the head, upper digestive flatulence, boils, and nighttime obsessive thoughts. He relied mostly on the then common treatment of hydrotherapy, which sometimes would bring back, for a short period, a semblance of good health. (ibid., Darwin's Illness )

Excitement provoked many of his symptoms. Even the anticipation of a trip to visit friends could bring on symptoms of hypochrondria, heart palpitations, hot flushes, shivering, ringing of ears, focusing and black dots in his fields of vision. At times he suffered from agoraphobia, with occasional fear of leaving his home.

Darwin wrote his friend Hooker that he was preoccupied with death. However, he insisted that he was not afraid to die. At the end of his life, however, he was longing to die. (ibid.) Psychiatrist author Colp does not condemn the psychoanalytic theories of the cause of Darwin's symptoms but remained of the opinion that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that Darwin was a confirmed neurotic.

When Darwin received news of the death of his friend Hugh Falconer, Colp writes that Darwin experienced an "extra bad time" of illness. When he learned that Falconer had "suffered terribly" before dying, he described in a letter to Hooker as "5 or 6 wretched days, miserable from morning to night & unable to do anything." In the same letter he told Hooker that we was "quite haunted" by thoughts of Falconer's "horrid" sufferings.

Transferring these thoughts onto a future of death becoming dominant over life he went on to write: "but everyone has his own pet horror, & . . . even personal annihilation sinks in my mind into insignificance compared with the idea, or rather I presume certainty, of the sun some day cooling & we all freezing .. Sic transit gloria mundi [Thus passes away the story of the world], with a vengeance." (Colp, Darwin's Illness, pps. 98-99)

That he was a hypochrondriac with a fear of death there is no doubt and it has been established by some theoreticians that such a diagnosis can be associated with having had pre- and peri-natal trauma. (S. Grof, Beyond the Brain (1985), pps. 282-284). Quite often fear of illness is accompanied with a fear of death which is a common symptom of those who had a traumatic birth The obsessional and meticulous detail of his symptoms which Darwin kept in his Diary of Health also supports his hypochrondria.

Grof writes that such a variety of complaints represent "...a surfacing organismic memory of serious physiological difficulties from the past, such as diseases, operations, or injuries -- and particularly the trauma of birth." (ibid., p. 282-3). Often, excitement unnerved Darwin and at times he wished himself dead as when he had "worked up" anxious conversations with friends. Anticipatory anxiety was often present when he contemplated travel to visit friends. Its contemplation brought up many of his symptoms.

At times he was overly dependent on his sister, Susan, and wife, Emma. He wrote to his wife Emma: "Susan was very kind to me, but I did yearn for you. Without you when sick I feel most desolate." Near the end of the letter he repeated: "Oh Mammy I do long to be with you & under your protection for then I feel safe." In March 1849, when he was still acutely ill, he wrote Susan: "Emma, bless her old soul, thinks as much about me as I do even myself." I'll leave this quotation to the reader's interpretation as well as descriptions of his symptoms in this review.

Could his many-symptomed illnesses have been caused by panic attacks as some who have studied his case have surmised? He did have occasional "fits" of hysteria. (Colp, Darwin's Illness, p. 95.) On an occasion after Lyle (the eminent geologist) left after a short visit "Emma described in her diary an episode of Darwin's "hysterical crying" - a period of crying that was unusually long. (op. cit., p. 83)

At ages 56-57, Darwin experienced, "vomiting preceded by shivering, hysterical crying, (and) dying sensations." His vomiting episodes did not bring up food, but rather, bilious material.

"Some of the stresses that he said resulted in his having short periods of increased illness were travels and visiting new places that mentally disturbed him, overworking, seeing his son George having teeth extracted under chloroform anesthesia, presiding over scientific meetings, and speaking before audiences." (Colp, Darwin's Illness, p. 183). As mentioned, this had also occurred when Darwin, during his short sojourn at medical school, witnessed a bloody surgery performed sans anaesthesia and which led to his turning away from medicine as a vocation.

He experienced months of vomiting which had resulted from writing, On the Origins of Species. However, in 1848-49 and 1863-54 he had months of vomitings triggered by grief over his father's death and then by anger over the failure of his friend Lyell to fully support natural selection as the modus which made possible, his "survival of the fittest" theory of how new species originated (ibid., Colp, p. 183).

Conversations and visits with friends brought up many of his symptoms so he limited his visits and long talks to close friends in order to reduce his sufferings. After marriage in 1839 to Emma Wedgwood, there had been "a severe worsening of illness." (ibid., p. 182). During this time he did less work than during any other period of his life (ibid., p. 182). However, he cherished his wife deeply, who took upon herself with concern the role of mother and nurse-maid.

"Over the following three decades, his illness largely consisted of "extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence," (restricted to his upper digestive tract) episodes of vomiting, sometimes becoming prolonged, and episodes of a "swimming head", trembling, and seeing black spots. He also had cardiac palpitations, paresthesia in his hands, headaches, "rocking," depressions and obsessions, and "eczema" of his face." (ibid., p 183.) The later plagued him all of his life and it was to conceal his facial eczema that he grew a beard.


Many of the symptoms from which Darwin suffered are known by regressive psychology theoreticians to have their specific origins in birth trauma. Dr. Colp's two books are mostly listings and descriptions of the symptoms which Darwin experienced. Little extraneous biographical information is furnished.

Of late, more emphasis has been placed by regression therapy theoreticians that early trauma, especially birth as the predominant source of panic and anxiety attacks. Because many of the symptoms from which Darwin suffered seemingly were the results of panic and anxiety, a hypothesis can be reasonably proposed that the origins of much of his early and later symptomology lay in the traumas of his pre- and peri-natal traumas. These reviews have emphasized that relationship, although the case has not yet been settled. In a Journal of the American Medical Association, article, Drs. T. J. Barloon and R. Noyles, Jr. concluded that Darwin, throughout his life, had often suffered from panic attacks with agoraphobia (1996)..

I wrote in a recent article, Panic Attacks: Symptoms & Dangers - Their Origins in Early Traumas, that the symptoms of panic and anxiety attacks are derived from birth trauma. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV, lists symptoms which appear frequently in such attacks. The referenced article above attempts to show that the symptoms of panic and anxiety attacks are the actual relivings of symptoms originally experienced in and later derived from inutero and peri-natally imprinted memories of the traumatic birth process itself.

Although, Dr. Colp does not condemn the psychoanalytic theories of the origin of Darwin's many symptoms, he believes that more evidence is needed to establish that such theories point to the origin of Darwin's symptoms. The work of Barloon and Noyes, Charles Darwin and Panic Disorder, JAMA, April 23-30, 1997, attempts to show a correlation between the symptoms listed in DSM-IV experienced by those in anxiety or panic attacks and specific symptoms from which Darwin suffered throughout his life.

The symptoms as listed in DSM-IV are, palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; sensations of shortness of breath or smothering; feelings of choking; chest pain or discomfort; nausea or abdominal distress; feeling dizzy; unsteady, lightheaded, or faint; feelings of "unreality" or being detached from oneself; fear of losing control or going crazy; fear of dying; numbness or tingling sensations and chills or hot flushes.

Of the thirteen listed, "Darwin experienced ten of the above symptoms of panic disorder...only...four symptoms at the same time on the one occasion of his "miserable" pre-Beagle illness." (ibid. p. 159)

Colp discusses Barloon and Noyles conclusions in the final chapter of Darwin's Illness and wrote that they felt "that Darwin's illness resembled panic disorder." (ibid., p. 159) According to psychiatrist Stanislav Grof and clinical psychologist Arthur Janov, such symptoms appear in those who have experienced traumatic birth or uterine experiences.

Dr. Grof, in Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research (2000), believes that traumas after birth, in and of themselves, are not of sufficient import to explain emotional disorders. He calls these later explanations "superficial and unconvincing," and believes that the force of severe physical traumas are required to explain the strength of the psychosomatic symptoms and these traumas are usually always the traumas of birth" (p. 129). Although Janov is not as inclusive as Grof in this regard, he believes that positive correlations exist for a number of the symptoms of panic attacks. (Arthur Janov, Ph.D., Why You Get Sick: How You Get Well, 1996, pps. 102-104).

See my article, Panic Attacks: Symptoms & Dangers - Their Origins in Early Traumas.

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