Darwin’s Shrink

A noted Darwin historian probes the naturalist’s inner life.

Darwin's Shrink
Thea Brine (www.theabrine.com)

Psychiatrist Ralph Colp Jr.’s favorite patient has been buried in Westminster Abbey since 1882. Nevertheless, Colp has come to know him intimately throughunpublished letters, his medical diary, and written reminiscences of his family and friends in British and American archives. The patient is Charles Darwin, about whom Colp has written many articles and the classic, 1977 book, To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin, which he is currently revising.

After practicing surgery for five years, Colp switched to psychiatry and became a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (Psychiatry) in 1965. He served as attending psychiatrist at Columbia University Health Services until 1993, and is now a senior associate in the Program of Human Sexuality and Sex Therapy at the New York University Medical Center and a member of the Psychohistory Forum. But it is his labor of love that has earned him a reputation as the dean of Darwin historians. In a series of conversations, Natural History questioned Colp, now 81, about Darwin’s personality, family life, politics, and illness.

Natural History: When did you first become interested in Charles Darwin?

Ralph Colp Jr.: My father was a surgeon, and in his office were framed portraits of Darwin, Freud, Huxley, Lister, and Pasteur. As a child, I thought they were heroes of science, much nobler than my father and his colleagues who practiced medicine as a business. When I was in high school, in the 1940s, my biology teacher said, “Nobody believes in Darwinism any more,” yet she kept mentioning him. I saw that he was exerting a force, still stirring up controversies sixty years after his death. But my interest from the first,  staring at Darwin’s portrait when I was a boy, was, “What was he like as a man?” I really started taking him on seriously in 1959, when I was thirty-five, and there were all the scientific celebrations and press reports about the centenary of the Origin of Species.


NH: How can one analyze the mental state of a person who died long ago?

Colp: Darwin’s life is extraordinarily well documented by letters, diaries, notebooks, and his own record of his health. His handwriting is often very difficult to decipher, however, and even when you do decipher it, you might find some fragment incomprehensible. It can call for a bit of scholarly sleuthing. For instance, in an 1858 letter to his wife, Emma, Darwin complains that he had been to Farnham in Surrey, and that “the Review and the confounded Queen” made him feel ill. What could that mean? Perhaps a nasty article about the Queen had appeared in the popular magazine Quarterly Review? I searched it in vain. But when I checked newspapers for the Queen’s whereabouts on that date, I found that she was near Farnham reviewing some troops. Now it was clear: this man who I knew loved military parades was upset by the sloppy drill described in the article, which mentioned that the soldiers kicked up clouds of dust. So he came alive for me there. Multiply that by hundreds of instances of figuring out the meaning of fragments.

NH: How well do you feel you know him?

Colp: Probably much better than I know some of my living friends and patients. I’m interested in physical details as well as his emotional and inner life. Even the way he walked, or worked, or the quality of his laugh—it was thin, musical, and hollow sounding, like a peal. He and Thomas Huxley liked to sit and joke and laugh for hours. Darwin lived an exemplary life as an English country gentleman, the affectionate father to a brood of seven children. When I was in high school, in the 1940s, my biology teacher said, “Nobody believes in Darwinism any more,” yet she kept mentioning him. I saw that he was exerting a force, still stirring up controversies sixty years after his death. Sometimes he sat on the local magistrate’s bench as a Justice of the Peace, “to help keep order in the neighborhood.” He was always kind and considerate to his servants and gardeners, and taught his children to always address them with “please” and “thank you.”

NH: What are your views on his illness?

Colp: When I first began in 1959, I noticed that the many biographies of him had little to say about the causes and nature of the illness that dominated his life. In To Be an Invalid, I published the first comprehensive account of his illness. I showed that as a youth he suffered brief psychosomatic symptoms from transient mental stresses, and as an adult he suffered protracted psychosomatic illness—altered sensations, cardiac palpitations, headaches, and trembling—mainly from working on his controversial theory of evolution. He had told a friend that to abandon Church teachings on the immutability of species was “like confessing a murder.” He delayed writing the Origin of Species for more than twenty years, until a younger naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, forced his hand. His endless agonizing, guilt, and self-flagellation over writing and publishing could be described as obsessive. When his theory was accepted and he stopped working on it, his health improved. Darwin was always a sensitive individual, but after the Beagle voyage he became even more so, and two years afterward suffered a debilitating illness. His condition points to an organic disease. But Darwin’s own doctors were baffled. Not until 1959 did Saul Adler, an Israeli parasitologist, suggest that Darwin’s illness was Chagas’ disease. During Darwin’s lifetime the disease was not yet known to medicine, so it is no wonder it was never diagnosed. In 1835 Darwin had recorded in his diary that he was bitten by the “Benchuca [vinchuca] bug . . . called the great black bug of the Pampas,” a vector of the parasitic trypanosome that causes Chagas’ disease [see “In the Heat of the Night,” by Graciela Flores, Natural History, July-August 2005]. Darwin appears to have had the arrested form of the disease, which can appear years after the bite and causes weakness, nausea, and flatulence for many years.

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