Sherlock Holmes and the Ailing Naturalist

History and medicine sleuths at the University of Maryland host a conference each year to solve a historical medical mystery. This year, symptoms which plagued Darwin over the decades have been reconsidered.

Now, a new interpretation of his symptoms may have revealed the causes of Darwin’s condition. Research presented last week suggests that he suffered from three distinct ailments: cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS), which generally starts in childhood; Chagas’ disease, a parasitic illness contracted during his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle, and Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria now known to cause peptic ulcers.

Philip A. Mackowiak, MD, the author of Post Morten: Solving History’s Great Medical Mysteries, finds value for today’s practitioners in learning from medicine of the past.

“Every generation thinks they have the answers to life’s great questions, and subsequent generations say, ‘Aren’t they quaint? What were they thinking of?’ ” Dr. Mackowiak adds. “In trying to do the best we can, we have to be humble and realize that in the final analysis, it may not be all that good.”

(Side note: In an art history class a few years ago, we discussed how Egyptian art featuring Akhenaten portrayed him in a feminized form. I’m pretty sure we decided that there were major religious and cultural statements being made. In the end, he may have had aromatase excess syndrome.)

If you’re utterly fascinated by this sort of thing, be sure to check out case studies of George Armstrong Custer, Beethoven, Pericles, Claudius, and Mozart.


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