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

A bittersweet signal from the discomposing territory between reason and hope.

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

In the spring of 1849, ten years before On the Origin of Species shook the foundation of humanity’s understanding of life, the polymathic astronomer John Herschel — coiner of the word photography, son of Uranus discoverer William Herschel and nephew of Caroline Herschel, the world’s first professional female astronomer — invited the forty-year-old Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) to contribute the section on geology to an ambitious manual on ten major branches of science, commissioned by the Royal Navy. Darwin produced a primer that promised to make good geologists even of readers with no prior knowledge of the discipline, so that they might “enjoy the high satisfaction of contributing to the perfection of the history of this wonderful world.”

In submitting his manuscript, Darwin wrote to Herschel:

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

A perfectionist prone to debilitating anxiety, Darwin was vexed by the editorial process. But in the autumn of 1850, just as the manual was about to go to press, trouble of a wholly different order eclipsed the professional irritation: The Darwins’ beloved nine-year-old daughter, Annie — the second of their ten children and Charles’s favorite, fount of curiosity, sunshine of the household — fell ill with a mysterious ailment.

Emma and Charles Darwin

When Charles and Emma first realized that their daughter’s condition was more than a fleeting sickness, they turned to what the era’s medical authorities prescribe for sickly children: sea-bathing, believed to be a reliable cure-all for symptoms ranging from “languor and weakness of circulation,” per one medical encyclopedia, to cases of “listless and indolent state of the mind.” A natural history and travel guide from the era describes the craze for sea-bathing at Ramsgate, a coastal resort in Kent: “A sudden plunge into the ocean causes the blood to circulate briskly, and promotes the heat of the body.” It was to Ramsgate that the Darwins first sent Annie, hoping for maritime recovery. But her illness only escalated into fever and headaches.

A year earlier, the Darwins had traveled to the spa village of Malvern, where Charles was to try a new “cold water cure” devised by a Dr. James Gully. Darwin’s chronic illness at times manifested as insomnia, at other times as “dreadful vomiting every week.” It was never accurately diagnosed nor treated, and he was desperate for relief. One contemporary theory holds that he suffered from an acute anxiety disorder. Having read Dr. Gully’s The Water Cure in Chronic Disease, Darwin set his scientific skepticism aside and wrote to the physician, willing to try his treatment — he worried that the constant vomiting was getting in the way of his work. “If once half-well,” he wrote to his best friend, “I could do more in six months than I now do in two years.”

Dr. Gully’s treatment, developed in response to his two-year-old daughter’s death, included the vehement disavowal of medication. The little girl had been treated with every known drug at the time — including heavy metals like mercury, lead, and arsenic — and had died convulsed with harrowing pain. The bereaved father had set out to devise a course of alternative medicine. His hydropathy drew such famous patients as Lord Tennyson and Florence Nightingale — and now Charles Darwin.

Vanity Fair caricature of Dr. Gully by the famed English portrait artist and caricaturist Spy. (Wellcome Collection.)

In Darwin’s defense, this was a time when medical science was so rudimentary that it bled into the same metaphysical manipulation techniques that religious rhetoric used to keep belief systems and power structures in place. Such manipulation was only possible because the line between science and pseudoscience was blurred again and again as modern medicine was finding its footing. Because the body — especially woman’s body — was so poorly understood and the paradigm of clinical trials was generations away, most medical treatments in Darwin’s day were based on some combination of speculation, common lore, and anecdotal trial and error. This was an era when bloodletting was the primary treatment of a vast array of sickness and the majority of early childhood illnesses — from diarrhea and colic to fever and restlessness — were attributed to teething. The all-inclusive malady was the most commonly listed cause of infant death in local registers and was treated with a litany of allegedly curative barbarisms — blistering, bloodletting, and massive doses of dubious medication. Parents would lance the inflamed gums of their infants using unsterilized kitchen utensils, which often inflicted infections that ended up as the true cause of fatality. One of the most common medications was a solution of calomel powder — mercury — given to the child until he or she began to salivate, now a recognized symptom of acute mercury poisoning. With their tongues swollen to manyfold the usual size, children often died of dehydration following calomel treatment, but neither parents nor physicians implicated the drug in causality for half a century. It took many more decades to uncover the permanent neurological damage — from seizures to tremors to chronic fatigue — on those who survived the treatment, with mercury lodged in their bodies for life.

Because it bears repeating again and again that even the farthest seers can’t bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizon of possibility, Darwin was trapped between the medical lore of his day and the ineradicable human hope for miracles. Although Dr. Gully’s belief in clairvoyance and general susceptibility to unscientific thought sat uncomfortably with Darwin, he came to like the hydropath a great deal and readily submitted to his methods — which included “cold feet baths and compress on the stomach,” as well as a proprietary “sweating process.”

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 manual and instead enthused about the treatment’s “astonishingly renovating action” on his health:

Before 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 walk between two & three miles. Physiologically it is most curious how the violent excitement of the skin, produced by simple water, has acted on all my internal organs.

I mention all this out of gratitude to a process which I thought quackery a year since, but which now I most deeply lament I had not heard of some few years ago.

1855 caricature of one of Dr. Gully’s water cures.

Despite Darwin’s elation over the effect of the “cold water treatment” on his own health, when Annie fell gravely ill, he couldn’t set aside his scientific doubts about Dr. Gully’s dubious beliefs in clairvoyance, homeopathy, and other pseudoscience. He scoffed in a letter:

[Homœopathy] is a subject which makes me more wroth, 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… 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.

Such things were out of the question when it came to Darwin’s most beloved child — he entrusted her health to traditional medicine. In November 1850, the Darwins took their daughter to London to be seen by the prominent physician who had supervised her birth. After a second futile visit the following month — Annie had added a barking cough to her swelling chest of symptoms — Darwin was once again desperate, betrayed by medical science. He finally gave in and wrote to Dr. Gully for advice, then commenced a water treatment at home under the doctor’s instruction, planning to take Annie back to Malvern in the spring for a proper “water cure.” But even this home remedy Darwin approached with scientific rigor. In a medical diary of sorts, he meticulously recorded Annie’s changing condition as he applied the six-part method, which included Dr. Gully’s proprietary “spinal wash” (a towel repeatedly drenched in icy water is swept up and down the patient’s spine) and “sweating by the lamp” (the patient is draped with a tent of sheets, under which a lamp containing alcohol is lit, producing nearly unbearable heat).

Some of the water treatments offered at Malvern.

Although Annie would show intermittent signs of improvement — enough to give the anxious parents hope that what they were doing was effective — her health declined over the longer span of weeks. In the first days of spring, Darwin gave up on his home treatment, ended the medical diary, and braved the two-day passage to Malvern with Annie and two of her siblings, leaving Emma at home, seven months pregnant with the ninth of their ten children.

As Annie was lying mortally ill, Charles Dickens and his wife were also at Malvern, where Catherine Dickens was undergoing hydropathy to improve her shaky health. Dickens, who had just lost his father, left Kate at Malvern just after Darwin arrived with Annie and returned home, where he was given harrowing news: His youngest daughter, Dora — named after David Copperfield’s child bride — had died, not yet one, after a sudden and inexplicable series of seizures. A decade later, in a letter of consolation to his sister upon the loss of her husband, Dickens would write that while grief never fully leaves, “a real earnest strenuous endeavour to recover the lost tone of spirit” is necessary if one is to go on with life — observing that in “a determined effort to settle the thoughts, to parcel out the day, to find occupation regularly or to make it, to be up and doing something, are chiefly to be found the mere mechanical means which must come to the aid of the best mental efforts.” The strategy seems almost banal. But anyone who has lived through loss will recognize in it the essential banality of survival — we come unmoored, then buoy ourselves up with the flimsiest of lifeboats, cobbled together out of any plank and rope we can grasp.

Annie Darwin (Cambridge University Libraries)

On April 23, 1851, Annie Darwin dies in her father’s arms. Eight years later, On the Origin of Species would subvert the elemental human instinct with its argument for natural selection — the survival and improvement of the species through the demise of the individual. Death, Darwin would imply, is not unjust but inherently natural — part of the impartial laws holding the universe together, mortality unshackled from morality and metaphysics, leaving no room for charges of blame and pleas for mercy. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin would write, speaking perhaps to himself. Across the Atlantic, Emily Dickinson would ponder this cycle — “circuit,” she called it — of life and death:

Seed, summer, tomb.
Who’s doom —
To whom?

With Annie’s body still warm beside him, Darwin drags the pen across the letter paper, across the British archipelago, across his lacerated consciousness, to deliver to Emma the most undeliverable news in the universe.

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

For other excerpts from Figuring, savor Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert; the striking story of how Kepler invented science fiction and revolutionized our understanding of the universe while defending his mother in a witchcraft trial; wisdom on middle age and the art of self-renewal from the remarkable forgotten pioneer who in her ninety years translated the first American edition of Buddhist teachings, founded the first English-language kindergarten in the United States, and coined the word “Transcendentalism”; the story of how Hans Christian Andersen turned his greatest heartbreak into one of the most beloved fairy tales of all time; a lesson in tenacity and perseverance from the polymathic woman for whom the word “scientist” was coined; and the lost story of the nineteenth-century sculptor who blazed the path for women of color in art.


Against Aloneness in the Web of Life: Ernst Haeckel, Charles Darwin, and the Art of Turning Personal Tragedy into a Portal to Transcendence

An antidote to isolation by way of tiny marine creatures and a broken Romantic heart.

In the waning winter of 1864, Charles Darwin opened a package that stopped his breath. “It is one of the most magnificent works which I have ever seen,” he exulted in his response to the sender — a young, still obscure German marine biologist by the name of Ernst Haeckel (February 16, 1834–August 9, 1919), who would go on to coin the word ecology a century before the great marine biologist Rachel Carson made it a household word in catalyzing the environmental movement. Haeckel would become a naturalist, a philosopher, and the greatest champion of Darwin’s evolutionary ideas; he would name and describe thousands of previously undiscovered animal species; he would coin and crown an entire kingdom, Protista.

Stephoidea by Ernst Haeckel. Available as a print and as a face mask.

Barely thirty, impelled by the peculiar boldness that comes from personal despair so grave that one feels one has nothing left to lose, Haeckel had decided to share with the esteemed and controversial Darwin the work to which he had devoted years: his studies of radiolarians — tiny single-cell marine organisms with mineral skeletons of striking geometries — in two handsome folio volumes, which Haeckel had illustrated with delicate, detailed, hauntingly beautiful copper-etched drawings.

Acanthometra by Ernst Haeckel. Available as a print.

Haeckel had come under the spell of radiolaria during his yearlong scientific studies and travels in Italy at the age of twenty-five — the year Darwin published On the Origin of Species — and had since diverted all of his scientific passion and artistic training toward these miniature masterworks of nature. “I had no idea that animals of such low organization could develope such extremely beautiful structures,” Darwin gushed. He ended his rapturous reply to Haeckel with these bittersweet words:

I hope you are able to work hard on science & thus banish, as far as may be possible, painful remembrances.

The painful remembrance: On the day of Haeckel’s thirtieth birthday the previous month, Anna Sethe — the love of his life, whom he was finally about to marry upon receiving his first gainful academic appointment, after a four-year engagement — died suddenly, of a ruptured appendix. Haeckel — who considered himself “decidedly a ‘Leptoderm,’ that is, ‘thin-skinned,’” and therefore susceptible to “much more suffering and, also, more intense joy than the run of men” — was unpeeled by grief. “Dark melancholy has replaced my former cheerful joy in life,” he confided in Darwin, aware of the elder scientist’s own devastating experience of loss.

Anna Sethe and Ernst Haeckel shortly before her death.

The search for transcendence became Haeckel’s survival mechanism for this fathomless personal tragedy — the transcendence he found in nature, in its breathtaking complexity and breathtaking simplicity, in its every microscopic detail magnified to reveal millennia of meticulous craftsmanship and refinement by the forces of evolution.

A century and a half after they so enchanted Darwin, French artist Zöe Almon Job has set Haeckel’s radiolaria drawings in motion and in thought in a lovely animated reflection on the relationship between aloneness and togetherness, on the delicate symbioses of nature and their subtler existential undertones illuminating the totality of being, in which even the most isolated existence is an emissary of our natural interconnectedness.

Complement with the great naturalist John Muir, a contemporary of Haeckel’s, on the transcendent interconnectedness of nature and poet Howard Nemerov’s Haeckel-like geometric-existential poem about the interconnectedness of the universe, then revisit these stunning and sensual illustrations of cephalopods from the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures, by a contemporary and compatriot of Haeckel’s.


The Charming Doodles Charles Darwin’s Children Left All Over the Manuscript of ‘On the Origin of Species’

From fish with legs to carrot cavalries, an endearing testament to the human life of science.

The Charming Doodles Charles Darwin’s Children Left All Over the Manuscript of ‘On the Origin of Species’

In contemplating family, work, and happiness, Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) proclaimed: “Children are one’s greatest happiness, but often & often a still greater misery. A man of science ought to have none.” And yet he and Emma had ten. Adept at weighing the pros and cons of family life with equal parts earnestness and irreverence, he clearly concluded that the happiness far outweighs the misery.

There is no more endearing a testament to how this balance skews — to both the exuberant happiness that children bring and the benign misery of the innocent waywardness — than the doodles Darwin’s children left on the back-leaves and in the margins of his Origin of Species manuscript draft, recently digitized by the American Museum of Natural History in collaboration with the Cambridge University Library.

At age 8, George Howard Darwin, who grew up to be an astronomer and a mathematician, draws an entire visual taxonomy of the British infantry; Francis Darwin, who followed in his father’s footsteps and became a botanist, draws a warring salad; on a dummy envelope, an unidentified child produces a charming caricature of Darwin himself.

From a fish with legs to a fruit-and-vegetable cavalry, these irrepressibly joyful drawings, some inspired by natural history and some by the typical staples of boyhood fantasy, bespeak the inseparability of science and life — here is one of the greatest scientists of all time, who forever changed humanity’s relationship to itself, and here are the inked imprints of his own life’s most human dimension.

Many thanks to the wonderful Rebecca Solnit for bringing this treasure to my attention. The children’s drawings are part of AMNH’s ambitious and important Darwin Manuscript Project, which has digitized more than 30,000 of the great scientist’s documents.

For other little-known facets of Darwin’s humanity, see the story of his battle with anxiety, his brilliant strategy for handling critics, and his beautiful letter of appreciation to his best friend and greatest champion, then revisit his contemporary John Ruskin on how drawing helps you see the world more clearly.

Images courtesy of American Museum of Natural History / Cambridge University Library


Charles Darwin’s Touching Letter of Appreciation to His Best Friend and Greatest Champion

“You are the one living soul from whom I have constantly received sympathy… I never forget for even a minute how much assistance I have received from you.”

Charles Darwin’s Touching Letter of Appreciation to His Best Friend and Greatest Champion

“We always keep the dearest things to ourselves,” teenage James Joyce wrote in his beautiful letter of appreciation to Ibsen, his greatest hero. This habitual withholding of gratitude is a perennial tragedy of human relationships, and this interpersonal tragedy has broader cultural reverberations. The more I live, the more convinced I become that great friendships are the heartstrings of creative culture, the wings that lift artists, scientists, and dogma-disruptors above the cesspool of criticism, contention, and indifference with which every groundbreaking creative act is first met.

Without Emerson’s generous letter to Whitman, we might not have Leaves of Grass. Without Ursula Nordstrom’s unflinching support, Maurice Sendak wouldn’t have blossomed into the Maurice Sendak. Without the patron who helped him quit his soul-sucking day job as a postal worker, Bukowski may have never become a full-time writer. Without Thomas Mann’s deeply assuring letters, Hermann Hesse may have succumbed to self-doubt. And what of the young amateur meteorologist who may have never classified the clouds as we know them without Goethe’s support?


Among the most spirit-sustaining friendships in the history of humanity’s intellectual evolution was that between Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) and his closest friend, the botanist and explorer Joseph Dalton Hooker (June 30, 1817–December 10, 1911), recounted beautifully in the 1944 gem British Botanists (public library) — one of Oliver Sacks’s favorite books.

From the dawn of Darwin’s career, when 22-year-old Hooker slept with the proofs of The Voyage of the Beagle under his pillow in order to read them as soon as he awoke, to the day he accompanied Darwin’s coffin to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey, Hooker was Darwin’s dearest confidante and staunchest champion. It was in a letter to Hooker that Darwin first intimated the seed of his natural selection theory in 1844, and it was under Hooker’s encouragement that he set it down in writing fourteen years later, shortly before coming upon an essay by Alfred Russell Wallace that outlined a nearly identical theory before Darwin had published his. When he was overcome with despair — a malady that bedeviled him frequently — it was once again Hooker who bolstered his spirit and persuaded him not to give up the work.

Darwin's first diagram of an evolutionary tree , sketched in his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837)
Darwin’s first diagram of an evolutionary tree , sketched in his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837)

In 1909, when some of the world’s greatest scientists converged in Cambridge to celebrate Darwin’s centennial, 92-year-old Hooker stood tall among them, paying homage to the friend he had outlived by nearly two decades and helped for more than five.

The deep humanity of the friendship comes alive in Darwin’s correspondence with Hooker, collected in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin: Volume 1 (public library | free ebook). Shortly after Hooker encouraged him to synthesize his theory of natural selection in an abstract, Darwin writes in a letter from October 6, 1858:

I am working most steadily at my Abstract, but it grows to an inordinate length; yet fully to make my view clear (and never giving briefly more than a fact or two, and slurring over difficulties), I cannot make it shorter. It will yet take me three or four months; so slow do I work, though never idle. You cannot imagine what a service you have done me in making me make this Abstract; for though I thought I had got all clear, it has clarified my brains very much, by making me weigh the relative importance of the several elements.

Having not yet mastered his brilliant strategy for preempting criticism, Darwin urges his friend in a letter penned six days later:

I pray you not to pronounce too strongly against Natural Selection, till you have read my abstract, for though I daresay you will strike out many difficulties, which have never occurred to me; yet you cannot have thought so fully on subject as I have.

But after sending the letter, Darwin is seized by his chronic anxiety and finds himself dwelling on whether he offended Hooker, his greatest champion, by implying that he might be hurtfully critical or not knowledgeable enough to comment adequately. In another letter penned the following day, Darwin articulates the central paradox that bedevils every creative person’s friendships — the parallel and conflicting desires for honest feedback from one’s friends and for their unconditional approval of one’s work and character (the two being deeply integrated for the creative person).

A self-conscious Darwin writes to Hooker:

I have been a little vexed at myself at having asked you not “to pronounce too strongly against natural selection.” I am sorry to have bothered you, though I have been much interested by your note in answer. I wrote the sentence without reflexion. But the truth is that I have so accustomed myself, partly from being quizzed by my non-naturalist relations, to expect opposition & even contempt, that I forgot for the moment that you are the one living soul from whom I have constantly received sympathy. Believe [me] that I never forget for even a minute how much assistance I have received from you. — You are quite correct that I never even suspected that my speculations were a “jam-pot” to you: indeed I thought, until quite lately, that my [manuscript] had produced no effect on you & this has often staggered me. Nor did I know that you had spoken in general terms about my work to our friends, excepting to dear old Falconer, who some few years ago once told me that I should do more mischief than any ten other naturalists would do good, & that I had half-spoiled you already! All this is stupid egotistical stuff, & I write it only because you may think me ungrateful for not having valued & understood your sympathy; which God knows is not the case. It is an accursed evil to a man to become so absorbed in any subject as I am in mine.

Hooker did not judge his friend’s work or character harshly — to the contrary, he stood by him and became crucial in the formal advancement of his theory. Later that year, it was he who presented Darwin’s ideas on natural selection at the annual meeting of the Linnean Society, which became the first public presentation of evolutionary theory. The following year, On the Origin of Species was published and the world changed forever.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly fascinating Life and Letters of Charles Darwin with Darwin on family, work, and happiness, the pros and cons of marriage, and his daily routine, then revisit the touching letter of gratitude Albert Camus wrote to his childhood teacher shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize.


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