Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 2

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Author: Charles Darwin

Chapter 2.XVI. Climbing and Insectivorous Plants. Concusion.

Some idea of the general course of my father’s health may have been gathered from the letters given in the preceding pages. The subject of health appears more prominently than is often necessary in a Biography, because it was, unfortunately, so real an element in determining the outward form of his life.

During the last ten years of his life the condition of his health was a cause of satisfaction and hope to his family. His condition showed signs of amendment in several particulars. He suffered less distress and discomfort, and was able to work more steadily. Something has been already said of Dr. Bence Jones’s treatment, from which my father certainly derived benefit. In later years he became a patient of Sir Andrew Clark, under whose care he improved greatly in general health. It was not only for his generously rendered service that my father felt a debt of gratitude towards Sir Andrew Clark. He owed to his cheering personal influence an oftenrepeated encouragement, which laterally added something real to his happiness, and he found sincere pleasure in Sir Andrew’s friendship and kindness towards himself and his children.

Scattered through the past pages are one or two references to pain or uneasiness felt in the region of the heart. How far these indicate that the heart was affected early in life, I cannot pretend to say; in any case it is certain that he had no serious or permanent trouble of this nature until shortly before his death. In spite of the general improvement in his health, which has been above alluded to, there was a certain loss of physical vigour occasionally apparent during the last few years of his life. This is illustrated by a sentence in a letter to his old friend Sir James Sulivan, written on January 10, 1879: "My scientific work tires me more than it used to do, but I have nothing else to do, and whether one is worn out a year or two sooner or later signifies but little."

A similar feeling is shown in a letter to Sir J.D. Hooker of June 15, 1881. My father was staying at Patterdale, and wrote: "I am rather despondent about myself...I have not the heart or strength to begin any investigation lasting years, which is the only thing which I enjoy, and I have no little jobs which I can do."

In July, 1881, he wrote to Mr. Wallace, "We have just returned home after spending five weeks on Ullswater; the scenery is quite charming, but I cannot walk, and everything tires me, even seeing scenery...What I shall do with my few remaining years of life I can hardly tell. I have everything to make me happy and contented, but life has become very wearisome to me." He was, however, able to do a good deal of work, and that of a trying sort (On the action of carbonate of ammonia on roots and leaves.), during the autumn of 1881, but towards the end of the year he was clearly in need of rest; and during the winter was in a lower condition than was usual with him.

On December 13 he went for a week to his daughter’s house in Bryanston Street. During his stay in London he went to call on Mr. Romanes, and was seized when on the door-step with an attack apparently of the same kind as those which afterwards became so frequent. The rest of the incident, which I give in Mr. Romanes’ words, is interesting too from a different point of view, as giving one more illustration of my father’s scrupulous consideration for others:—

"I happened to be out, but my butler, observing that Mr. Darwin was ill, asked him to come in, he said he would prefer going home, and although the butler urged him to wait at least until a cab could be fetched, he said he would rather not give so much trouble. For the same reason he refused to allow the butler to accompany him. Accordingly he watched him walking with difficulty towards the direction in which cabs were to be met with, and saw that, when he had got about three hundred yards from the house, he staggered and caught hold of the park-railings as if to prevent himself from falling. The butler therefore hastened to his assistance, but after a few seconds saw him turn round with the evident purpose of retracing his steps to my house. However, after he had returned part of the way he seems to have felt better, for he again changed his mind, and proceeded to find a cab."

During the last week of February and in the beginning of March, attacks of pain in the region of the heart, with irregularity of the pulse, became frequent, coming on indeed nearly every afternoon. A seizure of this sort occurred about March 7, when he was walking alone at a short distance from the house; he got home with difficulty, and this was the last time that he was able to reach his favourite ’Sand-walk.’ Shortly after this, his illness became obviously more serious and alarming, and he was seen by Sir Andrew Clark, whose treatment was continued by Dr. Norman Moore, of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and Mr. Alfrey, of St. Mary Cray. He suffered from distressing sensations of exhaustion and faintness, and seemed to recognise with deep depression the fact that his working days were over. He gradually recovered from this condition, and became more cheerful and hopeful, as is shown in the following letter to Mr. Huxley, who was anxious that my father should have closer medical supervision than the existing arrangements allowed:

Down, March 27, 1882.

My dear Huxley,

Your most kind letter has been a real cordial to me. I have felt better to-day than for three weeks, and have felt as yet no pain. Your plan seems an excellent one, and I will probably act upon it, unless I get very much better. Dr. Clark’s kindness is unbounded to me, but he is too busy to come here. Once again, accept my cordial thanks, my dear old friend. I wish to God there were more automata (The allusion is to Mr. Huxley’s address ’On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata, and its History,’ given at the Belfast meeting of the British Association in 1874, and republished in ’Science and Culture.’) in the world like you.

Ever yours, CH. DARWIN."

The allusion to Sir Andrew Clark requires a word of explanation. Sir Andrew Clark himself was ever ready to devote himself to my father, who, however, could not endure the thought of sending for him, knowing how severely his great practice taxed his strength.

No especial change occurred during the beginning of April, but on Saturday 15th he was seized with giddiness while sitting at dinner in the evening, and fainted in an attempt to reach his sofa. On the 17th he was again better, and in my temporary absence recorded for me the progress of an experiment in which I was engaged. During the night of April 18th, about a quarter to twelve, he had a severe attack and passed into a faint, from which he was brought back to consciousness with great difficulty. He seemed to recognise the approach of death, and said, "I am not the least afraid to die." All the next morning he suffered from terrible nausea and faintness, and hardly rallied before the end came.

He died at about four o’clock on Wednesday, April 19th, 1882, in the seventy-fourth year of his age.

I close the record of my father’s life with a few words of retrospect added to the manuscript of his ’Autobiography’ in 1879:—

"As for myself, I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following, and devoting my life to Science. I feel no remorse from having committed any great sin, but have often and often regretted that I have not done more direct good to my fellow creatures."

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Chicago: Charles Darwin, "Chapter 2.XVI. Climbing and Insectivorous Plants. Concusion.," Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 2, ed. Darwin, Francis and trans. Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866 in Life and Letters of Charles Darwin Original Sources, accessed August 9, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=49HFLB77B468TGN.

MLA: Darwin, Charles. "Chapter 2.XVI. Climbing and Insectivorous Plants. Concusion." Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 2, edited by Darwin, Francis, and translated by Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866, in Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 2, Original Sources. 9 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=49HFLB77B468TGN.

Harvard: Darwin, C, 'Chapter 2.XVI. Climbing and Insectivorous Plants. Concusion.' in Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 2, ed. and trans. . cited in , Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. Original Sources, retrieved 9 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=49HFLB77B468TGN.