The Dizziness of “Stultis the Fool”

Robert Traynor
June 13, 2012

A few months ago we reviewed the story of Vincent Van Gogh, revealing some interesting twists.  This week Hearing International looks at the British naturalist, Charles Darwin; famous for the his 19th century Theory of Evolution.

Born in 1809 to wealthy parents in Shrewsbury, England, his mother died at the age of 8.  Educated at the University of Edinburgh he came from a long line of scientists and physicians. He was set to become a physician at the University of Edinburgh, but surgery was messy in those days  and he found that he could not stand the sight of blood.

Though the Darwins had been physicians for two generations, he took up the study of religon at Cambridge. But his real passion was Natural Science, and he studied Botany and Geoology. Upon graduation from Cambridge in 1831, Darwin was recommended by his mentor to become the Naturalist on board the HMS Beagle during her 5-year voyage around the world from 1831 to  1836.

Over the course of the trip, Darwin collected a variety of natural specimens, including birds, plants and fossils. Through hands-on research and experimentation, he had the unique opportunity to closely observe principles of botany, geology, and zoology by investigating a wide range of geological and biological phenomena that  ultimately developed into his controversial theories. In 1858, after years of publication and scientific investigation, Darwin publically introduced his revolutionary Theory of Evolution in a letter read at a meeting of the Linnean Society. On November 24, 1859, he published a detailed explanation of his theory in his best-known work, On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection.

“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.”

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is the widely held notion that all life is related and has descended from a common ancestor: the birds and the bananas, the fishes and the flowers — all related. Darwin’s general theory presumes the development of life from non-life and stresses a purely naturalistic (undirected) “descent with modification.”  He called this process Natural Selection as it worked to preserve and accumulate minor advantageous genetic mutations. Suppose a member of a species developed a functional advantage (for example, it grew wings and learned to fly). Its offspring would inherit that advantage and pass it on to their offspring. The inferior (disadvantaged) members of the same species that could not fly would gradually die out, leaving only the superior (advantaged) members of the species.  LePage (2008) reports that Darwin did not coin the term “survival of the fittest,” but that it was invented by a contemporary of Darwin, philosopher Herbert Spencer, a great proponent of evolutionism.  This term was very influential in Spencer’s presentations that helped popularize the concept of Evolution.

Stultis the Fool

Charles Darwin, or “Stultis the Fool,” as his closest friends called him, was certainly not the fittest and at times wondered himself if he would survive. This name referred to his habit of trying experiments most people would prejudge to be fruitless or fool’s experiments.  References and biographies all suggest that “Stultis” suffered from many health difficulties, including Ménière’s Disease.  The nature of his illnesses has been the subject of much speculation over the past 130+ years since his death.  During his life, he was diagnosed by competent physicians of his time (and, according to references, the incompetent as well) with no fewer than 16 different maladies, among them arsenic poisoning (from prescribed medications), Chagas disease (resulting from an insect bite during his time in South America), Lactose Intolerance, Asberger’s syndrome….and a number of others Meniere’s Disease.

Although the hypothesis that Ménière’s disease was the main cause of Darwin’s physical difficulties has gained some popularity, the case is far from compelling. A diagnosis of Ménière’s disease is typically based on a series of symptoms, some of which were present in Darwin’s case, such as tinnitus, vertigo, dizziness, nausea, motion sickness, vomiting, continual malaise and fatigue. However, the fact that hearing loss and “fullness” of the ears are never mentioned among Darwin’s symptoms  practically excludes the possibility of Ménière’s disease, according to some authorities. In his discussion of Darwin’s ailments, Hayman (2009) indicates that he suffered from a chronic, relapsing illness throughout his adult life. This was characterized by episodes of nausea, vomiting, intermittent abdominal pain, weakness, and lethargy, and was often associated with headache, dizziness (‘swimming of the head’), and palpitations. According to Hayman, the absence of any report that Darwin suffered from deafness, along with  nausea and vomiting being his main symptoms,  makes a diagnosis of Meniere’s Disease unlikely.

The definition of this disease is, however, not very solid, and some form of “atypical Ménière’s disease” remains a remote possibility. Motion sickness plagued him  throughout his life, as became apparent very early when he suffered horribly of seasickness during the whole voyage of the Beagle. Darwin himself believed that most of his health problems originated from that experience. Later, he could not stand traveling by carriage, and only horse riding would not affect his health.

Psychic alteration often accompanies Ménière’s and many other chronic diseases. An argument put forward for a diagnosis of Ménière’s is that Darwin hunted a lot when he was young and could have damaged his inner ear with the repeated noise of shooting. While it is not unlikely that the noise damaged the inner ear and caused tinnitus, it could not have caused Ménière’s disease. While Ménière’s disease patients suffer during vertigo attacks from sickness and vomiting, Darwin’s dyspepsia or digestive problems probably have nothing to do with it. One of the diagnoses that he received from his physicians at the time was that of “suppressed gout,” which to some physicians was considered an early name for Menieres’s Disease, but this seems to lack credibility.

As noted, many physicians have ruled out Ménière’s Disease in his case, because Darwin did not appear to have a hearing loss or “fullness in the ear.”  However, as otologists, otolaryngologists, and audiologists realize these days, Ménière’s can occur without much hearing impairment and, when a hearing loss is present, it is usually low-frequency in varying degrees.  It is possible, then, that Darwin did have  Ménière’s Disease, accompanied by minimal hearing impairment and fullness , but that it was masked by Darwin’s his other health issues.  For more on the difficulties of diagnosing Menieres Disease, check out the Series now running at Dizziness Depot.  And if you want some semi accurate history on Charles Darwin, take the kids or grandkids to the Pirates.


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