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What Killed Charles Darwin?
Last week, Charles Darwin became the latest “patient” at an annual conference that aims to unravel the medical mysteries of long-dead historical figures. A leading gastroenterologist diagnosed three conditions that may have plagued the English naturalist throughout his life and contributed to his death at 73. Past conferences have plumbed the lives and deaths of prominent individuals ranging from Christopher Columbus and Florence Nightingale to Alexander the Great and Claudius.
The man who popularized the term “survival of the fittest” was not terribly fit himself. Born into a freethinking family of English physicians in 1809, Charles Darwin suffered from a host of conditions beginning in his early 20s, primarily chronic vomiting, abdominal pain and gastrointestinal trouble. Later in life, he developed other miscellaneous and seemingly unrelated symptoms, including eczema, boils, weakness, vertigo, twitching and joint pain.
At 73, his stomach problems somewhat abated but his memory deteriorating, the father of evolution succumbed to heart failure after a three-month decline that reportedly began with a dizzy spell during a rock climbing expedition. According to his children, Darwin—a doting family man at a time when active fathers were rare—spoke these words to his wife Emma shortly before dying: “I am not the least afraid of death. Remember what a good wife you have been to me. Tell all my children to remember how good they have been to me.” (Those who cared for him in his final moments later vehemently denied rumors—largely circulated by a British evangelist who went by the name Lady Hope—that the agnostic scientist had re-embraced Christianity and recanted his ideas about evolution on his deathbed.)...
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