Love, Loss, and the Banality of Survival: Charles Darwin, His Beloved Daughter, and How We Find Meaning in Mortality

In the spring of 1849, 10 years prior to On the Origin of Species shook the structure of humankinds understanding of life, the polymathic astronomer John Herschel– coiner of the word photography, kid of Uranus innovator William Herschel and nephew of Caroline Herschel, the worlds first professional female astronomer– invited the forty-year-old Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809– April 19, 1882) to contribute the area on geology to an enthusiastic handbook on ten significant branches of science, commissioned by the Royal Navy. Darwin produced a primer that promised to make great geologists even of readers without any prior knowledge of the discipline, so that they may “delight in the high fulfillment of adding to the excellence of the history of this fantastic world.”

This essay is excerpted from the thirteenth chapter of Figuring, entitled “The Banality of Survival.”

In sending his manuscript, Darwin composed to Herschel:

Vanity Fair caricature of Dr. Gully by the famous English portrait artist and caricaturist Spy. (Wellcome Collection.) In Darwins defense, this was a time when medical science was so primary that it bled into the very same metaphysical manipulation techniques that religious rhetoric used to keep belief systems and class structure in location. Due to the fact that the line between science and pseudoscience was blurred again and again as modern-day medicine was discovering its footing, such control was just possible. Since the body– specifically ladys body– was so inadequately understood and the paradigm of medical trials was generations away, most medical treatments in Darwins day were based on some mix of speculation, common lore, and anecdotal experimentation. This was a period when bloodletting was the main treatment of a vast array of illness and most of early youth diseases– from diarrhea and colic to fever and restlessness– were associated to teething. The all-encompassing ailment was the most typically listed reason for infant death in regional registers and was treated with a list of apparently alleviative barbarisms– blistering, bloodletting, and enormous dosages of suspicious medication. Parents would lance the inflamed gums of their infants using unsterilized cooking area utensils, which typically caused infections that ended up as the real reason for fatality. Among the most common medications was an option of calomel powder– mercury– provided to the kid up until she or he started to salivate, now an acknowledged symptom of severe mercury poisoning. With their tongues swollen to manyfold the typical size, children often passed away of dehydration following calomel treatment, however neither moms and dads nor doctors linked the drug in causality for half a century. It took much more decades to uncover the long-term neurological damage– from seizures to tremblings to chronic fatigue– on those who endured the treatment, with mercury lodged in their bodies for life.

A year earlier, the Darwins had traveled to the health spa village of Malvern, where Charles was to attempt a brand-new “cold water remedy” developed by a Dr. James Gully. Darwins persistent health problem sometimes manifested as insomnia, at other times as “terrible vomiting every week.” It was never properly detected nor treated, and he was desperate for relief. One modern theory holds that he experienced an acute anxiety condition. Having actually checked out Dr. Gullys The Water Cure in Chronic Disease, Darwin set his clinical suspicion aside and wrote to the doctor, prepared to try his treatment– he fretted that the consistent throwing up was getting in the way of his work. “If when half-well,” he composed to his friend, “I might do more in 6 months than I now carry out in two years.”

It was to Ramsgate that the Darwins first sent Annie, hoping for maritime recovery. Her disease just intensified into fever and headaches.

A perfectionist susceptible to incapacitating stress and anxiety, Darwin was vexed by the editorial process. In the fall of 1850, simply as the handbook was about to go to press, trouble of a wholly various order eclipsed the professional inflammation: The Darwins precious nine-year-old child, Annie– the second of their ten children and Charless preferred, fount of curiosity, sunlight of the family– fell ill with a mystical condition.

Because it bears repeating once again and again that even the farthest seers cant bend their look beyond their eras horizon of possibility, Darwin was caught in between the medical tradition of his day and the ineradicable human expect miracles. Although Dr. Gullys belief in clairvoyance and general susceptibility to unscientific idea sat annoyingly with Darwin, he concerned like the hydropath a lot and readily submitted to his techniques– that included “cold feet baths and compress on the stomach,” as well as a proprietary “sweating procedure.”

Dr. Gullys treatment, developed in response to his two-year-old daughters death, included the vehement disavowal of medication. His hydropathy drew such well-known patients as Lord Tennyson and Florence Nightingale– and now Charles Darwin.

I much fear, from what you state of size of type that it will be too long; but I do not see how I might reduce it, except by rewording it, & & that is a labour which would make me groan. I do not much like it, however I have in vain thought how to make it much better. I must be grateful for any corrections or erasures on your part.

The Darwins left Malvern after three months. In a letter to John Herschel penned in June 1849, Charles set aside his discontentment over the editorial tensions with the handbook and rather enthused about the treatments “astonishingly refurbishing action” on his health:

Prior to coming here I was almost quite broken down, head swimming, hands tremulous & & never a week without violent vomiting, all this is gone, & & I can now stroll in between 2 & & three miles. Physiologically it is most curious how the violent enjoyment of the skin, produced by basic water, has actually acted upon all my internal organs.
I discuss all this out of appreciation to a procedure which I believed quackery a year because, however which now I most deeply lament I had actually declined some few years back.

1855 caricature of among Dr. Gullys water cures.Despite Darwins elation over the impact of the “cold water treatment” on his own health, when Annie fell gravely ill, he could not reserve his clinical doubts about Dr. Gullys dubious beliefs in clairvoyance, homeopathy, and other pseudoscience. He scoffed in a letter:

Such things ran out the question when it concerned Darwins a lot of beloved child– he entrusted her health to standard medicine. In November 1850, the Darwins took their child to London to be seen by the popular doctor who had actually supervised her birth. After a 2nd useless go to the following month– Annie had included a barking cough to her swelling chest of symptoms– Darwin was as soon as again desperate, betrayed by medical science. He lastly gave in and wrote to Dr. Gully for guidance, then began a water treatment at house under the medical professionals direction, preparing to take Annie back to Malvern in the spring for a correct “water treatment.” Even this house solution Darwin approached with clinical rigor. In a medical journal of sorts, he diligently recorded Annies changing condition as he used the six-part technique, which consisted of Dr. Gullys proprietary “spine wash” (a towel consistently drenched in icy water is swept up and down the patients spinal column) and “sweating by the lamp” (the client is draped with a tent of sheets, under which a lamp including alcohol is lit, producing nearly excruciating heat).

Annie Darwin (Cambridge University Libraries) On April 23, 1851, Annie Darwin dies in her dads arms. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin would write, speaking perhaps to himself.

“I am so thankful for the daguerreotype,” he composes.

As Annie was lying mortally ill, Charles Dickens and his better half were also at Malvern, where Catherine Dickens was going through hydropathy to improve her unsteady health. Dickens, who had simply lost his daddy, left Kate at Malvern simply after Darwin arrived with Annie and returned home, where he was given harrowing news: His youngest daughter, Dora– called after David Copperfields kid bride– had passed away, not yet one, after a mysterious and unexpected series of seizures.

Seed, summer, tomb.Whos doom– To whom?

Some of the water treatments offered at Malvern.Although Annie would reveal periodic indications of improvement– enough to offer the anxious parents hope that what they were doing worked– her health declined over the longer span of weeks. In the very first days of spring, Darwin quit on his house treatment, ended the medical journal, and braved the two-day passage to Malvern with Annie and two of her brother or sisters, leaving Emma in the house, seven months pregnant with the ninth of their 10 kids.

Having actually checked out Dr. Gullys The Water Cure in Chronic Disease, Darwin set his scientific apprehension aside and wrote to the doctor, prepared to attempt his treatment– he worried that the constant throwing up was getting in the method of his work. Due to the fact that the body– especially ladys body– was so improperly comprehended and the paradigm of clinical trials was generations away, most medical treatments in Darwins day were based on some mix of speculation, typical lore, and anecdotal trial and error. After a 2nd useless go to the following month– Annie had included a barking cough to her swelling chest of symptoms– Darwin was when again desperate, betrayed by medical science. Dickens, who had just lost his daddy, left Kate at Malvern simply after Darwin got here with Annie and returned home, where he was offered painful news: His youngest child, Dora– called after David Copperfields child bride– had died, not yet one, after a abrupt and inexplicable series of seizures. Annie Darwin (Cambridge University Libraries) On April 23, 1851, Annie Darwin dies in her fathers arms.

With Annies body still warm next to him, Darwin drags the pen across the letter paper, throughout the British island chain, throughout his lacerated consciousness, to provide to Emma the most undeliverable news in deep space.

For other excerpts from Figuring, savor Emily Dickinsons electric love letters to Susan Gilbert; the striking story of how Kepler developed sci-fi and reinvented our understanding of the universe while safeguarding his mother in a witchcraft trial; wisdom on middle age and the art of self-renewal from the remarkable forgotten leader who in her ninety years translated the very first American edition of Buddhist mentors, founded the very first English-language kindergarten in the United States, and created the word “Transcendentalism”; the story of how Hans Christian Andersen turned his biggest heartbreak into one of the most precious fairy tales of all time; a lesson in perseverance and determination from the polymathic woman for whom the word “scientist” was coined; and the lost story of the nineteenth-century sculptor who blazed the course for women of color in art.

[Homœopathy] is a subject which makes me more wroth, even than does Clairvoyance: clairvoyance so goes beyond belief, that a persons normal faculties are put out of question, but in Homœopathy sound judgment & & typical observation entered play, & & both these must go to the Dogs, if the infinetesimal dosages have any result whatever … No one knows in illness what is the simple outcome of absolutely nothing being done, as a standard with which to compare Homœopathy & & all other such things.