Despite Darwin’s Initial Skeptism, a Homeopathic Doctor Provides Significant Relief to Him
Dana Ullman, MPH
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My new book, The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy (North Atlantic Books, 2007) includes many amazing stories about the use of and/or advocacy for homeopathic medicine from many of the most respected cultural heroes of the past 200 years. Even I was surprised to uncover specific stories from 11 American presidents, seven popes, JD Rockefeller, Charles Kettering, and innumerable literary greats, sports superstars, corporate leaders and philanthropists, clergy and spiritual leaders, women’s rights leaders, monarchs from all over the world, and many of the most esteemed physicians and scientists of our time.
One of the most amazing stories came from the life of Charles Darwin. Because so many of Darwin’s personal letters have been maintained and are now available online, there is a veritable treasure-trove of information about his life, illnesses, and his medical treatment. What will be described here is a part of his story, with much greater detail provided in The Homeopathic Revolution.
Darwin’s story is but one story in the chapter on “Physicians and Scientists: Coming out of the Medicine Closet.” Some of the others included in this chapter are: Sir William Osler (the “father of modern medicine”), Emil Adolf von Behring (the “father of immunology”), Sidney Ringer, Charles Frederick Menninger (founder of the Menninger Clinic), August Bier (the “father of spinal anesthesia”), Royal S. Copeland (homeopathic physician and New York Senator), William J. Mayo and Charles H. Mayo (founders of the Mayo Clinic), C. Everett Koop (former Surgeon General, U.S.), and Brian Josephson (modern-day Nobel laureate and Cambridge professor).
During Darwin’s trip to South America in the mid-1830s, he became very ill. Although different historians and physicians have hypothesized on what ailment he had, there is no consensus, except to say that he was seriously ill. Ever since 1837, he suffered from persistent nausea and vomiting, heart palpitations, widespread boils, and trembling, and since 1847, he had fainting spells and spots before his eyes…and his symptoms were getting increasingly worse.
Although Charles Darwin was only 39 years old in November, 1848, he was so ill that he couldn’t attend his own father’s funeral. In March, 1849, Darwin himself acknowledged that he was unable to work one day in every three, and further, he felt that he was dying.
He said this specifically
“I was not able to do anything one day out of three, & was altogether too dispirited to write to you or to do anything but what I was compelled. I thought I was rapidly going the way of all flesh.”
When you consider that Charles Darwin was this sick in 1849 and that he published his seminal book, The Origin of Species, 10 years later in 1859, one cannot help but wonder if he would have even survived that long or if he would have been as productive as a scientist or as an author if he didn’t see Dr. James Manby Gully in March, 1849.
On the advice from one of his cousins as well as from a fellow shipmate from the Beagle, Charles Darwin brought himself and his family to the clinic and “water-cure” spa of Dr. James Manby Gully. They arrived on March 10, 1849.
Although Darwin knows that Dr. Gully is a homeopathic physician and even though Darwin is very skeptical of homeopathy, he wrote on March 19, 1849:
“I grieve to say that Dr Gully gives me homeopathic medicines three times a day, which I take obediently without an atom of faith.”
Despite Darwin’s skepticism about homeopathy, he experienced the power of these medicines.
After just eight days of his arrival, Darwin experienced a skin eruption all over his legs. It is interesting and important to note that patients who receive homeopathic treatment do not always get better immediately. In fact, in around 20-30% of patients with chronic symptoms, patients experience a “healing crisis,” usually an externalization of symptoms to the skin or an excerbation of old symptoms that were previously suppressed with conventional drugging. The fact that Darwin was skeptical of Gully’s treatment and that Darwin experienced this initial worsening of symptoms suggests that Darwin’s reaction was clearly not a placebo effect.Some skeptics assert that Gully’s “water-cure” treatment may have provided the therapeutic result, not homeopathy, though Darwin acknowledged on March 24, 1849, that Dr. Gully had not even begun the sweating process of his treatment, one of the important parts of water-cure treatment. Actually, it was just 2 weeks after arriving that Darwin wrote “I much like and think highly of Dr. Gully” and more.
On March 28, 1849, he had not have any vomiting for 10 days (a rare experience for him):
By April 19, 1849, Darwin wrote,
“I now increase in weight, have escaped sickness for 30 days, which is thrice as long an interval, as I have had for last year; & yesterday in 4 walks I managed seven miles! I am turning into a mere walking and eating machine.”
On May 6, 1849, Darwin writes:
“Dr. G., moreover, (and I hear he rarely speaks confidently) tells me he has little doubt but that he can cure me, in the course of time, time however it will take.”
Gully, like many homeopaths and hydrotherapists, do not tend of over-state their confidence. Although Gully seemed to be confident with Darwin, Darwin asserts that Gully rarely expresses confidence, suggesting that Gully didn’t use “confidence” as a strategy to elicit placebo responses.
Antagonists to homeopathy love to excerpt from the next Darwin letter from September 4, 1850, though they always just excerpt the top part of it. They never include the entire quote because Darwin acknowledges in this case that the girl being treated surprisingly recovered. Ironically, some skeptics insist that homeopathy was not the only treatment used. Although this is true, the clairvoyant that they used in this case was known to see inside a person’s body was not described as one who diagnosed with the intuition, not apply treatment. The mesmerist (hypnotist) was only described for the girl to sleep. The girl did receive water-cure treatment by Dr. Gully, as well as homeopathic treatment by Dr. John Chapman (who was Darwin’s teacher of homeopathy). Ultimately, no one knows what ailment this girl had, but it was serious enough for Darwin to write and to express surprise that she was cured, either by water-cure and/or homeopathy.
The entire quote is:
“You speak about Homœopathy; which is a subject which makes me more wrath, even than does Clairvoyance: clairvoyance so transcends belief, that one’s ordinary faculties are put out of question, but in Homœopathy common sense & common observation come into play, & both these must go to the Dogs, if the infinetesimal doses have any effect whatever. How true is a remark I saw the other day by Quetelet, in respect to evidence of curative processes, viz that no one knows in disease what is the simple result of nothing being done, as a standard with which to compare Homœopathy & all other such things. It is a sad flaw, I cannot but think in my beloved Dr Gully, that he believes in everything when his daughter was very ill, he had a clairvoyant girl to report on internal changes, a mesmerist to put her to sleep, an homœopathist, viz Dr. Chapman; & himself as Hydropathist! & the girl recovered.”
One important reason that so many people over the past 200 years become so passionate about homeopathy is that the results are often, though not always, very rapid and very obvious. Further, because many people have tried many other treatments before homeopathy (treatments that might have just as likely to have tried to elicit a placebo effect), the homeopathic treatments often work due to the power of these nanodoses that are beyond that of a placebo effect.
Even after Dr. James Gully retired, Gully hired a homeopathic medical doctor by the name of James Smith Ayerst to take his place. Although there were many other hydrotherapy spas throughout England at that time, Darwin frequently returned to Malvern where he received water-cure treatments as well as homeopathic medicines.
One other truly fascinating letter from January 16, 1862, that Darwin wrote is where he acknowledges that he has received a book written by a German homeopathic doctor who had written a book quite similar to Darwin’s book on evolution, but he asserts that this book “goes much deeper.”
Despite the wide respect that Dr. Gully received from his many illustrious patients, he was disliked greatly by select orthodox physicians. A classic story of Shakespearean porportions played out in England at that time between Dr. Gully and his greatest antagonist. Sir Charles Hastings, a physician who later helped to found the British Medical Association, was Gully’s most vitriolic opponent. Dr. Hastings was so opposed to hydrotherapy that he frequently wrote articles about its “dangers,” while he utilized a wide range of orthodox medical treatments that everyone would soon call simply barbaric.
The additional drama to the lives of Gully and Hastings is that their sons were also antagonists to each other. Gully’s son, William Court Gully, became speaker of the British House of Commons (1895–1905), while Hastings’ son, George Woodyatt Hastings, became a lawyer and politician. Like his father, George Hastings was actively antagonistic to unconventional medical treatments. Ultimately, the younger Hastings’s reputation was severely tarnished when he was sent to prison for stealing money from a client whose will he executed.
Strangely enough, some antagonists to homeopathy have referred to Gully as Charles Darwin’s “friend,” as though Darwin would have only taken the homeopathic medicines “obediently” if they were prescribed by a “friend” rather than by a homeopathic doctor. For the record, there is no evidence that Gully and Darwin were “friends.” They clearly had never met before Darwin sought Gully’s care, and there is no evidence that they socialized.
Dr. James Manby Gully:
Water Cure Physician and Homeopathic Doctor
Every biography of Charles Darwin that references his health acknowledges that the one physician who provided the best treatment to him was DR. JAMES MANBY GULLY. This is not controversial. This is fact.
Dr. Gully became a member of the British Homoeopathic Society in 1848 (this link provides this clear evidence), the year before he began his treatment of Charles Darwin. Gully was also found to be a member many years later in 1870.
Dr. James Manby Gully wrote a book called The Water Cure in Chronic Disease in 1846, and this popular book went through five editions (this link is to the 5th edition!). In the first edition to this book he was very articulate in his critique of conventional medicine of his day, though this critique is equally valid for medicine today. Gully was a strong critique of “polypharmacy,” the use of multiple medicines prescribed for a patient. Gully was concerned that each medicine causes serious symptoms which required yet another medicine to reduce its side effects.
“I could show by not a few illustrations how this complex medication, this polypharmacy, necessitates the employment of each of the medicines comprehended in it, to obviate the effects of another; how the effect of the mercurials have to be combated by the opiates; how these, again produce a necessity for the purgatives (drugs that induce vomiting); these, for the remedies for flatulence; and these again, producing heart-burn, call for alkalis and opiates…the whole plan is radically wrong.” (page 46)
Gully poses the question of how can a physician find the “precise stimulus” to a real cure for the patient. He then asserts that homeopaths provide “a more rational plan.” Drawing from his own experiences, he affirms that despite the use of infinitesimal doses used in homeopathy, “It is well and wise to observe and investigate these things before laughing at them” (page 47).
In 1856 when this book was published in its fifth edition, he added the following strong statements about the value of homeopathic medicines. He writes that distinct from the use of conventional medicines in the treatment of chronic constipation where drugs do not cure and lead to relapse, it is significantly different with homeopathic care: “In fact, cases abound in which homeopathic treatment alone has effectually and permanently cure habitual costiveness” (page 48).
In reference to the treatment of headaches, the use of homeopathic medicines is “not only justifiable but desirable.”
Finally, Gully continues by asserting, “Homeopathic practitioners have observed that patients under the water cure are more susceptible to the action of their remedies than other persons, and that therefore the results may be more accurately calculated. I have found this assertion to be substantially correct; and it confirms the vivifying influence of the water cure over the bodily functions” (page 48).
Darwin’s Plant Experiments with Homeopathic Doses.
It is also fascinating to note that Darwin himself conducted several experiments evaluating the effects of extremely small doses on an insect-eating plant (Drosera rotundifolia, commonly called sundew), a plant that also happens to be a commonly used homeopathic medicine. He found that solutions of certain salts of ammonia stimulated the glands of the plant’s tentacles and caused the plant to turn inward. He made this solution more and more dilute, but the plant still was able to detect the presence of the salt. On July 7, 1874, he wrote to a well-known physiologist, Professor F. C. Donders of Utrecht, Netherlands, that he observed that 1/4,000,000 of a grain had a demonstrable effect upon the Drosera and “the 1/20,000,000th of a grain of the crystallised salt does the same. Now, I am quite unhappy at the thought of having to publish such a statement.” (Darwin, 1903, 498).
Astonished by his observation, Darwin likened this exceedingly small dose to a dog that perceives the odor of an animal a quarter of a mile distant. He said: “Yet these particles must be infinitely smaller than the one twenty millionth of a grain of phosphate of ammonia” (Darwin, 1875, 173).
Darwin said about this spectacular phenomenon:
“The reader will best realize this degree of dilution by remembering that 5,000 ounces would more than fill a thirty-one gallon cask [barrel]; and that to this large body of water one grain of the salt was added; only half a drachm, or thirty minims, of the solution being poured over a leaf. Yet this amount sufficed to cause the inflection of almost every tentacle, and often the blade of the leaf. … My results were for a long time incredible, even to myself, and I anxiously sought for every source of error. … The observations were repeated during several years. Two of my sons, who were as incredulous as myself, compared several lots of leaves simultaneously immersed in the weaker solutions and in water, and declared that there could be no doubt about the difference in their appearance. … In fact every time that we perceive an odor, we have evidence that infinitely smaller particles act on our nerves.” (Darwin, 1875, 170)
In Darwin’s book on his experiments with Drosera, he expressed complete amazement at the hypersensitivity of a plant to extremely small doses of certain chemicals: “Moreover, this extreme sensitiveness, exceeding that of the most delicate part of the human body, as well as the power of transmitting various impulses from one part of the leaf to another, have been acquired without the intervention of any nervous system” (Darwin, 1875, 272).
Yet, Darwin also discovered that Drosera is not sensitive to every substance. He tested various alkaloids and other substances that act powerfully on humans and animals who have a nervous system but produced no effect on Drosera. He concluded that the “power of transmitting an influence to other parts of the leaf, causing movement, or modified secretion, or aggregation, does not depend on the presence of a diffused element, allied to nerve-tissue” (Darwin, 1875, 274).
Darwin confirmed an important homeopathic observation that living systems are hypersensitive to only certain substances. Sadly and strangely, conventional scientists have attacked homeopaths for using extremely small doses of substances without any appreciation for the homeopaths’ credo that living systems—whether human, animal, or plant—will be hypersensitive to a limited number of substances (and the homeopathic method of individualizing treatment is a refined method to find this substance or substances).
The important point about living organisms is that each living thing has certain hypersensitivities to what it needs for its very survival. It seems that homeopaths have discovered a method to finding the substance to which a person or animal is hypersensitive, and they have developed a pharmacological method to apply this medicine to augment immune response.
Despite the efforts of the antagonists to homeopathy to continually provide mis-information about the plausibility of the extremely small doses that homeopaths use, they rarely acknowledge the impressive website of Professor Martin Chaplin of London South Bank University (or as is typical, the skeptics delete references to his important work on http://www.wikipedia.org/). Professor Chaplin is a world-renowned expert on water, and he confirms the real plausibility on homeopathic medicines here and here even if there is not yet consensus from everyone on how these nanodoses precisely work (please note that the mechanism for understand how aspirin worked was only discovered 20 or so years ago, and not a single physician questioned its value or didn’t use it simply because we didn’t know how it worked).
NOTE: If this story about Charles Darwin intrigued you at all, you might also want to read about the hundreds of other cultural heroes over the past 200 years who used and/or advocated for homeopathy. Another sample chapter from this book (the chapter on “Literary Greats: Write On Homeopathy” is available here.and additional information about the book is
Darwin, C. Insectivorous Plants. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1875. http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/5765
Darwin, F., ed. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1903.
Readers are encouraged to read the entire book The Homeopathic Revolution. Consider ordering it through your local bookstore, through various online bookstores, or through homeopathic booksellers.
About the Author:
Dana Ullman, M.P.H. (Masters in Public Health, U.C. Berkeley) is “homeopathic.com” and is widely recognized as the foremost spokesperson for homeopathic medicine in the U.S. Besides authoring The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy, Dana Ullman co-authored America’s most popular homeopathic guidebook, Everybody’s Guide to Homeopathic Medicines (Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam, revised 2004), updated four times since its initial publication in 1984 (and published in eight languages).