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The Origin of Darwin's Anxiety

Shortly after Charles Darwin returned to England from his famous Beagle voyage to the Gal‡pagos and other islands in the southern oceans, he holed up as a virtual recluse for the rest of his life. What was wrong with him? Panic disorder and agoraphobia, or fear of open spaces, suggests a report in today's Journal of the American Medical Association. The disorder may have had profound implications for science: "Had it not been for this illness," says the JAMA article, "his theory of evolution might not have become the all-consuming passion that produced On the Origin of Species."

When he was in his early 20s, Darwin led an active life of travel and exploration that culminated in the 5-year voyage on the Beagle. But by the age of 28, he began to experience attacks of fear and soon moved with his wife to a country house in Kent. Until his death in 1882 at 73, Darwin suffered attacks of severe anxiety, often accompanied by heart palpitations, shortness of breath, feelings of impending doom, hysterical crying, and severe nausea and vomiting. He also had frequent feelings of depersonalization, which he described as "treading on air and vision." Moreover, he dreaded leaving his house. In 1837, Darwin refused the secretaryship of the Geological Society, writing, "Of late, anything which flurries me completely knocks me up afterwards and brings on violent palpitation of the heart."

Doctors puzzled over Darwin's case during his life and have continued to do so long after his death. Now psychiatrist Russell Noyes and radiologist Thomas J. Barloon of the University of Iowa College of Medicine think they have the right diagnosis. The panoply of symptoms, which the authors abstracted from letters, books, and diaries, clearly adds up to panic disorder, say Noyes and Barloon. "This diagnosis brings coherence to Darwin's activities and explains his secluded lifestyle, including difficulty in speaking before groups and meeting with colleagues," they write.

Other experts concur. The panic diagnosis "really is very convincing," says Jack Gorman, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. As for poor Darwin, he may have received some solace. His ill health, he wrote in his autobiography, "has annihilated several years of my life [but] has saved me from the distraction of society."