Did Darwin have ME/CFS?

crop-538599cc8101c-imgID3636752Charles Darwin lived in miserable health and debilitating fatigue until his death at the age of 73. It is quite ironic that one of the most recognizable names in the history of science, famed for his theory on “the origin of species,” was baffled by the origin of his own affliction. Darwin’s physical dysfunction was at times so incapacitating that it caused him extreme depression as well as a dying sensation. In his 50s, Darwin also experienced transient, yet immobilizing, paralysis with exertion in addition to frequent memory loss and difficulties in verbal expression—not unlike what is referred to as post-exertional malaise and “brain fog” in ME/CFS vernacular.

He often shunned company during severe episodes, at times for days on end, as many in our community are forced to do. Not even Darwin’s access to his elite network of fellow scientists or the best medicine of his time could explain the underpinnings of his symptoms or provide him relief. An English psychiatrist, Dr. John Bowldy, concluded that Darwin’s illness must be psychosomatic! Bowldy argued that Charles was still grieving the loss of his mother, who passed away when he was 8. Yet historians never described a grief-stricken Darwin, nor did he in his own autobiography.

Instead, what was verifiably documented is a slew of physiological and biochemical abnormalities like dysotonomia, visual disturbance, gastric dismotility, abdominal pain, muscle wasting, lactic acidosis, peripheral neuropathy, tachycardia, dizziness, seasickness, nausea and severe headaches. All clinical manifestations that bear striking resemblance to the spectrum of ME/CFS symptoms and associated morbidities including POTS.

An article in the journal Genetics by John Hayman suggests that Darwin’s disease could be mitochondrial in nature. Mitochodria are small but vital self-contained structures in every cell. They transform the power in nutritious sustenance into energy to fuel all human functions, physiological or cognitive. Hayman argued that Darwin’s illness was due to inherited mytochonrial mutations, that is, it was genetic, not psychological. The medical history of Darwin’s family, particularly on his mother’s side through which mitochnodria are inherited, gives credence to this argument. His brother was chronically ill and lethargic, his mother suffered from chronically ill health as did her brother/Darwin’s uncle.

Myopathies of mitochondrial nature have been implicated in ME/CFS for quite some time and some studies have even suggested a correlation between the level of mitochondrial inefficiencies and the degree of ME/CFS severity. That said, considerable research work, in the context of investigating cellular bioenergetics, is needed to comprehend the full role and contribution of mitochondria to the pathophysiology of ME/CFS, especially since mitochondrial myopathies can be both inherited and noninherited.

Watching the live feed of the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Advisory Committee (CFSAC) last month, including a heartfelt testimony by our president Carol Head, I wondered what Darwin would do if he were living amongst us? Would he have attended the CFSAC meeting and testified on behalf of ME/CFS patients or would he be making remarks as a scientist?


Zaher Nahle
Vice President for Research and Scientific Programs
Solve ME/CFS Initiative