Friday, February 13, 2009

Darwins Illness was Helicobacter Pylori

It is almost midnight on 12th of February and I am writing from Orebro Sweden so I have one more hour before it is midnight GMT. Today was the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birthday. One aspect of Darwin's life which has not really been analysed much in recnt years is the cause of his illness - a type of "nervous dyspepsia" according to his quack phyician Dr Gully at Malvern in 1849. In brief, Darwin spent most of his life with a gastric complaint, complaining of nausea and stomach pain. Like almost everyone in Victorian England, and the rest of the world, Charles Darwin most likely carried Helicobacter. Of people with Helicobacter, 10% have chronic peptic ulcer in their lifetime and maybe an equal percentage have chronic dyspepsia. I will elaborate more later - and try to have a short paper published on this - which so far has been rejected. Suffice it to say - the origin of the species which troubled Darwin was Helicobacter. End of Story!


frazier said...

Some people have suggested it was Crohn's disease from the varied symptoms he described, including mouth ulcers, fatigue (possibly anemia), and rapid heart beat. With all due respect, I am a microbiology student with Crohn's disease and am well aware of your research, but do people with severe stomach ulcers get fevers, chills, and then followed by vomiting? Wouldn't he have been throwing up blood, which he never mentioned in his letters?

John Hayman said...

Dear Barry, Thank you for adding to my list of possible causes of Darwin's illness (now 30+). I am aware that you have personally experienced symptoms of H. pylori infection and I am sure that some of Darwin's symptoms were due, at least in part, to this infection. However Darwin's underlying illness was the Cyclical Vomiting Syndrome, a little known but well-defined disorder linked to mitochondrial DNA abnormalities (take a moment to look it up in Wikepedia). I hope to present my case at the History Soc meeting in Perth in Sept/Oct where you are listed as keynote after-dinner speaker.
best wishes,
John Hayman

Barry Marshall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barry Marshall said...

Re Frazier:
Well, on the last day of his life he vomited blood then died four hours later (his wife's letters). I doubt that every symptom in his life was due to H.pylori but I have seen dozens of people over the years with a similar story. Dr Gully saw him and made the diagnosis of "nervous dyspepsia". These days, such a patient would receive H.pylori serology and/or endoscopy, and biopsy of the gastric mucosa.

Re John Hayman:
I did check the Wikipedia site and I do have experience with chronic vomiters as I worked with a motility guru (Prof Richard McCallum) at UVa for 10 years 1986-1996. I never saw a case of the mitochondrial cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS) and agree that mostly CVS is idiopathic i.e. we have'nt a clue!
The Wikipedia article is deficient since it does not mention H.pylori as a likely cause of vomiting. However, it does say this: "Once formal investigations to rule out gastrointestinal or other etiologies have been conducted, these need not be repeated in future episodes (Lindley et al., 2005)." Thus, diagnosis of cyclic vomiting is a diagnosis of exclusion of other G.I. diseases. Therefore, H.pylori must be excluded and a cyclic vomiter is a person who NEVER HAD H.PYLORI as far as we can tell. I think the Wikipedia article needs to have H.pylori mentioned specifically in the workup and the present discussion could be doing a disservice to many H.p.-infected people who are searching the web looking for an answer.
That aside, the rest of the syndrome you mention would fit Darwin's illness except that CVS does not usually last a lifetime. Shall I accompany you to Westminster Abbey at midnight with a long masonry drill and some test tubes looking for feces antigens to H.pylori and mitochondrial DNA? Alternatively, mitochondrial DNA could be tested through his mother's family tree and he has plenty of descendants still living who could probably help. You will have to do this on your own as I am pretty busy for the next 50 years; but I'll back you up.

John Hayman said...

Darwin did vomit 'clots of blood' but these were probably the result of small Mallory-Weiss tears rather than peptic ulceration.
It has been suggested that poor Darwin be disinterred looking for
(a) arsenic
(b) Trypanosoma DNA
It would be an obscenity to dig up Darwin just to take a sample but there would be a strong case to relocate him to Downe cemetery beside his beloved wife Emma. Darwin was a non-believer and he loved nature - his is a gloomy grave, located beside Newton, who did believe in a Creator. An open air memorial would be more appropriate. Iam sure Darwin would want to be relocated and I am sure he would want a sample taken for all manner of testing including mitochondrial DNA and H. pylori.

Barry Marshall said...

Re Blood,
Maybe, but that is what we have endoscopy for.
Re Digging up Charles Darwin..
He is safe in the Abbey for the present. He'll keep.

mmnott said...

Hello sir,

I'm a biotech student at my local community college.. Lonestar College District in The Woodlands, Texas.
It was my (mis)fortune to have been diagnosed with H. Pylori two days ago (first doctor's visit for the problem), just one day after my Microbiology exam. I was excited about knowing about the bacteria already.. the hazards of being a science geek, I guess.

Anyhow, I wanted to say thank you for all the work you put into Helicobacter, the website was very informative. Although, I'm curious on some of the more technical aspects and lab tests...etc.

Again, thank you for satisfying a lab rat's curiosity.

-Melissa Nott

joyce said...

I don't know the answer about Darwin's illness, but I do know that I have been diagnosed with h. Pylori after pain from a gastric ulcer flared up. I was just prescribed teracycline 4 times a day and metra. 3 times a day & omni. 2 times a day & pepto bismal 4 times a day. I just don't know when to take the pepto bismal. The warnings for the tetracycline say not to take the pepto 2 hours before or after the tet. because it decreases the effectiveness of the tet. The website seems to say the pepto INCREASES the effectiveness of the anti-biotics. Does that mean I can take the pepto at the same time as the tet.?

Lbfrancois said...

Having been infected for over two years now with Helicobacter pylori and tried many times the available antibiotic therapies wich failed to eradicate the bacteria, I have to say that I deeply sympathize with Mr. Darwin's suffering.

I wonder though how he managed to achieve so much while constantly suffering from nausea, vomiting, stomach pains... It must have been quite a struggle which makes me believe he was a very determined man.

I am not quite sure his fate would have been any different if he had access to H.pylori serology and/or endoscopy, and biopsy of the gastric mucosa.

Having gone through many exams myself, and exausted most of the available treatment due to a resistant strain of HP, I can only hope I won't share the same fate as Darwin, only 100 years later...