The Dizziness of “Stultis the Fool”

charles darwin dizziness meniere's disease
Robert Traynor
June 13, 2023

A few months ago, Hearing International delved into the story of Vincent Van Gogh, uncovering some intriguing details. This week, we turn our attention to the renowned British naturalist, Charles Darwin, celebrated for his groundbreaking 19th-century Theory of Evolution.

Charles Darwin was born in 1809 to affluent parents in Shrewsbury, England. Sadly, he lost his mother at the tender age of 8. He received his education at the University of Edinburgh and hailed from a lineage of scientists and physicians. Although initially destined to follow the path of a physician at the University of Edinburgh, Darwin discovered that surgery, in those times, was a gruesome endeavor, and he couldn’t bear the sight of blood.

Despite the Darwin family’s medical legacy spanning two generations, Charles redirected his focus to the study of religion while at Cambridge. However, his true passion lay in the realm of Natural Science, and he dedicated himself to the study of Botany and Geology. Upon completing his education at Cambridge in 1831, Darwin was recommended by his mentor to assume the role of Naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle during its monumental 5-year expedition around the world from 1831 to 1836.

darwin natural selectionThroughout this extraordinary journey, Darwin gathered an array of natural specimens, encompassing birds, plants, and fossils. Immersed in hands-on research and experimentation, he had the unique opportunity to closely investigate the principles of botany, geology, and zoology. This intensive study exposed him to a wide spectrum of geological and biological phenomena that laid the foundation for his controversial theories.

In 1858, after years of publication and scientific inquiry, Darwin unveiled his revolutionary Theory of Evolution in a letter read at a Linnean Society meeting.

Then, on November 24, 1859, he published a comprehensive exposition of his theory in his most renowned work, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.”

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

Theory of Evolution

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is a widely accepted concept positing that all life is interconnected and has evolved from a common ancestor. This notion encompasses various life forms, from birds and bananas to fishes and flowers. Darwin’s overarching theory assumes life’s development from non-life and emphasizes a wholly naturalistic and unguided process known as “descent with modification.”

In this context, he introduced the concept of Natural Selection, which functions to preserve and accumulate minor advantageous genetic mutations.

Here’s how it works: Let’s say a member of a species develops a beneficial trait, such as growing wings and gaining the ability to fly. This advantage gets passed down to their offspring, ensuring they inherit the same trait. Meanwhile, individuals within the same species who lack this advantageous trait, like the ability to fly, become disadvantaged. Over time, the disadvantaged members gradually decrease in number, while the superior ones, with the advantage, thrive and become the dominant members of the species.

It’s worth noting that Darwin didn’t actually coin the term “survival of the fittest.” Instead, this term was introduced by a contemporary of Darwin, the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who was a strong advocate for evolution. Spencer’s use of this term significantly contributed to popularizing the concept of Evolution.

Stultis the Fool

charles darwin dizzinessCharles 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 Charles Darwin’s illnesses has sparked curiosity and debate for over a century, particularly given the various diagnoses attributed to him during his lifetime. Competent physicians of his era, and some less competent ones, identified at least 16 different ailments that afflicted him. These ranged from arsenic poisoning caused by prescribed medications to Chagas disease contracted during his time in South America, lactose intolerance, Asperger’s syndrome, among others, including Meniere’s Disease.

Darwin’s Health and Possible Struggle with Ménière’s Disease

Although some have suggested that Ménière’s disease might have been the primary cause of Darwin’s health issues, the evidence supporting this claim remains inconclusive.

A Ménière’s disease diagnosis is usually based on specific symptoms, some of which were indeed present in Darwin’s case, such as tinnitus, vertigo, dizziness, nausea, motion sickness, vomiting, ongoing malaise, and fatigue. However, the absence of any mention of hearing loss or ear fullness among Darwin’s symptoms makes the likelihood of Ménière’s disease rather remote, according to some experts.

In discussing Darwin’s health problems, Hayman (2009) described them as a chronic, recurring illness throughout his adult life. It was characterized by episodes of nausea, vomiting, intermittent abdominal pain, weakness, lethargy, headache, dizziness (referred to as “swimming of the head”), and palpitations. Notably, the main symptoms that Darwin experienced were nausea and vomiting, and there’s no historical record of significant hearing issues, making a Ménière’s Disease diagnosis seem unlikely.

Nonetheless, Ménière’s disease is not precisely defined, and some variation known as “atypical Ménière’s disease” remains a remote possibility. Darwin’s life was marked by persistent motion sickness, beginning with severe seasickness during the Beagle’s voyage. Darwin himself attributed many of his health woes to this experience. His aversion to traveling by carriage and preference for horseback riding were influenced by his concerns about health.

Psychological changes often accompany Ménière’s and numerous chronic illnesses. One argument suggesting Ménière’s is that Darwin’s extensive hunting in his youth might have damaged his inner ear due to the repeated noise of shooting. While it’s plausible that such noise could cause tinnitus, it’s improbable that it caused Ménière’s disease. Darwin’s digestive problems and dyspepsia appear unrelated to Ménière’s disease. One of his physicians considered him to have “suppressed gout,” which some physicians of the time believed was an early term for Ménière’s disease, but this interpretation lacks credibility.

Many physicians have dismissed Ménière’s Disease as a diagnosis for Darwin because there is no evidence of hearing loss or ear fullness in historical records. However, today’s otologists, otolaryngologists, and audiologists acknowledge that Ménière’s can manifest with minimal hearing impairment or fullness in the ear, and such manifestations could have been obscured by Darwin’s other health problems.

To delve deeper into the complexities of Ménière’s Disease diagnosis and other related topics, head over to the Dizziness Depot.

About the author

Bob Traynor - Co-Host, This Week in Hearing

Robert M. Traynor, Ed.D., is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager and author.  He has decades of experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. He serves as Adjunct Faculty in Audiology at the University of Florida, University of Northern Colorado, University of Colorado and The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.


**this piece has been updated for clarity. It originally published on June 13, 2012

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