Darwin’s Shrink

A noted Darwin historian probes the naturalist’s inner life.

NH: How did the illness affect his daily life?

Colp: He could only work for two or three hours a day, and therefore followed a regimen of alternating work and rest. Yet his dogged determination carried him through thousands of experiments, seventeen books, and a hundred scientific papers. His wife, Emma, would regulate any visitors and strictly limit the time they were with him; he rarely left home and described himself as a “semi-invalid.” But he often used his illness as a convenient excuse to avoid unwanted visitors and dinner parties.


NH: Can we discuss the death of his daughter Annie, on which you’ve written the article “Charles Darwin’s ‘insufferable grief’” [Free Associations 9:7–44 (1987)]?

Colp: He had an enormous capacity for love, but was inhibited in expressing it. His sisters, who raised him, never talked about his mother, who died when he was eight years old. He learned to hold back his emotions, Darwin told a friend that to abandon Church teachings on the immutability of species was “like confessing a murder.” but when Annie died at the age of ten in April 1851 from “fever” (which some now believe was tuberculosis), he was inconsolable. It was the first time anyone had seen him cry. His sister-in-law was present and wept with him. Darwin expressed his feelings in a moving tribute to Annie, containing precise observations of her, along with his outpourings of affection. Here are some passages:

Her dear face now rises before me, as she used sometimes to come running down stairs with a stolen pinch of snuff for me, her whole form radiant with the pleasure of giving pleasure. . . . She would at almost anytime spend half-an-hour in arranging my hair, “making it,” as she called it, “beautiful,” or in smoothing, the poor dear darling, my collar or cuffs, in short in fondling me. She liked being kissed; indeed every expression in her countenance beamed with affection & kindness, & all her habits were influenced by her loving disposition. . . . All her movements were vigorous, active, & unusually graceful: when going round the sand-walk with me, although I walked fast, yet she often used to go before pirouetting in the most elegant way, her dear face bright all the time, with the sweetest smiles. . . . [In the last days of her illness,] when so exhausted that she could hardly speak, she praised everything that was given her, & said some tea “was beautifully good.” When I gave her some water, she said “I quite thank you”; & these, I believe were the last precious words ever addressed by her dear lips to me. . . . We have lost the joy of the Household, and the solace of our old age.

Annie’s death seemed to him so unjust that it precipitated his loss of belief in God.

NH: Did he have strong feelings on social issues?

Colp: Yes, he grew up in an anti-slavery household. The Wedgwood-Darwin family had a long tradition of Abolitionist support. A famous Wedgwood ceramic plaque shows a slave in chains with the slogan, “Am I not a man and a brother?” In Brazil he witnessed slavery firsthand, and never forgot the screams of a tortured slave coming from a house in Pernambuco. Watching or hearing people in pain made him physically ill. That was why he could not become a surgeon himself, as his father had wished. He fled from the operating theater at Edinburgh when he could not bear the screams of a strapped-down child in surgery—and never returned to pursue his medical career. He was against slavery not only on political and humane grounds, but also because it made him literally sick to his stomach.

NH: And yet he abandoned the cause during the American Civil War?

Colp: In 1861 Union troops boarded the English mail steamer RMS Trent and seized two Confederate officials who were bound for London to seek support for the Rebels. The English declared that to be an act of war unless the pair was freed. Darwin began to fear that the provocation by the North might lead to war between England and America. So he stopped supporting the Union cause, and opined that the North should learn to co-exist peacefully with the slave-owning South. Here was the strongest political principle that he had, and he compromised it out of petty patriotism. What the hell was wrong with him? He knew better than that.

NH: Has your intimate knowledge of Darwin influenced your own life?

Colp: As a young man, I realized that there were certain similarities. Like Darwin, I grew up in the shadow of a prominent physician for a father, and was expected to follow in his footsteps to become a surgeon. Like Darwin, I rebelled against following the path that had been set out for me. Although I did practice surgery for several years, I was more interested in the mind and the emotions and became a psychiatrist. Watching or hearing people in pain made him physically ill. That was why Darwin could not become a surgeon himself, as his father had wished. I have grown to imitate Darwin in many ways. My daily habits of early rising and then doing important writing first thing, for instance, and how I organize my day around strictly timed alternating periods of work and relaxation, of annotating and abstracting the books that I read, and of writing my first drafts on the backs of used sheets of paper—all of these habits I picked up from Darwin. He kept a diary on the early emotional expressions of his children, and I did the same when my daughters were infants. I try to be caring and helpful to my friends, as he did. When his friend Sir Joseph Hooker’s young son fell ill, Darwin drew on his own agonizing deathwatch of Annie to comfort him: “Much love much trial, but what an utter desert is life without love.”

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