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The Amazing Story Of Charles Darwin And His Homeopathic Doctor

Virtually every biography of Charles Darwin refers to his health problems and acknowledges that the one physician who provided an effective treatment for him was Dr. James Manby Gully.
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In early 1849, Charles Darwin was so ill that he was unable to work one of every three days, and after having various serious symptoms for two to twelve years, he wrote to a friend that he was dying. He sought treatment from Dr. James Manby Gully, a medical doctor who used water cure (hydrotherapy) and homeopathic medicines. Despite being highly skeptical of these treatments, he experienced a dramatic improvement in his health. He grew to appreciate water cure, but he remained skeptical of homeopathy, even though his own later experiments on insectivore plants using what can be described as homeopathic doses of ammonia salts surprised and shocked him with their significant biological effect. It is impossible to know if Charles Darwin would have survived long enough to have written his seminal book in 1859, published 10 years after Dr. Gully’s treatment. We may all have to thank the water cure and homeopathic treatment provided by Dr. Gully for Darwin’s survival.

NOTE: The article published here is a summary of a more detailed article that was just published in a medical journal published by Oxford University Press, called eCAM (which stands for “Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine"). To see this entire article, go to: Readers will find that the majority of the evidence here is drawn directly from Charles Darwin’s own personal letters.

This year, 2009, is an auspicious year for appreciators of Charles Darwin. It is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (1809–1882), and November 24, 2009, is the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work, On the Origin of Species (1859).

Although much has been written about Charles Darwin, few people today know that, according to Darwin’s own letters, it is uncertain that he would have lived long enough to have written this seminal scientific work in 1859 if he had not received treatment 10 years earlier from Dr. Gully.

After graduating from Cambridge in 1831, he began what became a five-year journey on the HMS Beagle surveying the coast of South America. On board the ship, Darwin suffered from seasickness, and in October 1833, he caught a fever in Argentina. In July 1834, while returning from the Andes down to the coast of Chile, he fell so ill that he spent a month in bed.

The Serious Illness and Near Death of Charles Darwin

From 1837 on, Darwin was frequently incapacitated with episodes of stomach pains, vomiting, severe boils, heart palpitations, and trembling. Orthodox physicians of Darwin’s day had no idea what his problem was, and all of their treatments simply made him worse.[1]

In 1847, Darwin’s illness worsened. He again experienced frequent episodes of vomiting and weakness, but he now was also experiencing fainting spells and seeing spots in front of his eyes. In March, 1849, he was so sick that he thought he was dying. Darwin wrote to his good friend, J.D. Hooker, an English botanist, that he was “unable to do anything one day out of three and am 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."[2]

It is indeed impossible to say that Charles Darwin would have been healthy enough to live another 10 years, let alone to work as diligently on the body of work that his seminal book required for its publication in 1859 unless some type of effective treatment significantly improved his health. Lucky for all of humanity, Charles Darwin sought out a different type of medical care and experienced a profound improvement in his health.

Dr. James Manby Gully: Homeopath and Hydrotherapist

The captain of the HMS Beagle, Capt. Sullivan, initially told Darwin about a different type of medical treatment provided by Dr. James Manby Gully (1808–1883), and this recommendation was taken more seriously when one of his cousins, William Darwin Fox, told Darwin that two friends had benefited greatly from Gully’s care. Dr. Gully, a medical graduate of the University of Edinburgh, was strongly critical of the use of drugs of that era. Gully was particularly critical of polypharmacy,[3] the common and unscientific practice of using multiple drugs concurrently for a patient, a practice that continues today. Gully’s medical practice did not simply provide water cure and dietary advice; he also prescribed homeopathic medicines and recommended medical clairvoyant readings. In 1846, he had authored a popular book entitled Water Cure in Chronic Disease[4] that Darwin was known to have read.

Darwin decided to go to see Dr. Gully with his wife, Emma, and their seven children.[5] Dr. Gully and his health spa were situated in Malvern (just southwest of Birmingham), around 150 miles from the Darwins’ home.

Virtually every biography of Charles Darwin refers to his health problems and acknowledges that the one physician who provided an effective treatment for him was Dr. Gully. However, most of these biographies make reference to Dr. Gully as a “hydrotherapist,” and few mention that he was a homeopathic physician.

After being at Dr. Gully’s spa for just nine days, Darwin lamented that Gully had prescribed homeopathic medicine to him: “I grieve to say that Dr. Gully gives me homeopathic medicines three times a day, which I take obediently without an atom of faith.” Darwin continued: “I like Dr. Gully much—he is certainly an able man”[6] The fact that Darwin saw Gully as being “able” was still not enough to convince him that homeopathic medicines were effective.

In 1848, Dr. Gully became a formal member of the British Society of Homeopathy,[7] and he maintained his membership through at least 1871.[8] In subsequent editions of his book, his favorable experiences with homeopathy led him to become a strong advocate for the power of homeopathic medicines in treating people with chronic diseases.

Gully’s observation that the use of concurrent treatment of water cure and homeopathic medicine seems to echo the experiences of naturopathic physicians who have been known to use these treatments together along with nutritional advice since the 19th century.

And even though Darwin was extremely skeptical, just two days later (March 30, 1849) Darwin acknowledged, “I have already received so much benefit that I really hope my health will be much renovated.”[9] After eight days a skin eruption broke out all over Darwin’s legs, and he was actually pleased to experience this problem because he had previously observed that his physical and mental health improved noticeably after having skin eruptions.[10] He went a month without vomiting, a very rare experience for him, and even gained some weight. One day he surprised himself by being able to walk seven miles. He wrote to a friend, “I am turning into a mere walking & eating machine.”[11]

After just a month of treatment, Charles had to admit that Gully’s treatments were not quackery after all. After sixteen weeks, he felt like a new man, and by June he was able to go home to resume his important work. Darwin actually wrote that he was “of almost perfect health.”[12]

Despite Darwin’s greatly improved health, he never publicly attributed any benefits directly to homeopathy. However, one must also realize that even though homeopathy achieved impressive popularity among British royalty, numerous literary greats, and many of the rich and powerful at that time, there was incredible animosity to it from orthodox physicians and scientists. Because Darwin was just beginning to propose his own new ideas about evolution, it would have been professional suicide to broadcast his positive experiences with homeopathy. Having to defend homeopathy would have damaged his credibility among his colleagues who were extremely antagonistic to this emerging medical specialty.

Darwin occasionally experienced relapses of digestive and skin symptoms over the years, so he returned to Dr. Gully’s clinic for more treatments, staying two to eight weeks. Although Darwin complained during his first visit that he experienced “complete stagnation of the mind,” he didn’t have similar problems during later visits to Gully’s clinic and spa. In fact, he asserted that his mind was alert and that his scientific writing was progressing well.[13]

He lived thirty-three more years, and it is surprising and confusing that the story of Darwin’s successful experiences with hydrotherapy and homeopathy has not become an integral part of the history of science and medicine today. After significant improvement in his persistent nausea and vomiting, frequent fainting spells, spots before his eyes, incapacitating stomach pains, severe fatigue, widespread boils, nerve-wrecking tremors and heart palpitations, he was considerably more able to do his seminal scientific work.

Some other people of significant notoriety who benefited from Dr. Gully’s care include Charles Dickens (novelist and writer), Alfred, Lord Tennyson (poet), Florence Nightingale (famed nurse), George Eliot (British novelist), Thomas Carlyle (Scottish essayist, satirist, and historian), John Ruskin (art critic and social critic), Edward Bulwer-Lytton (British novelist, playwright, and politician), Thomas Babington Macaulay (first Baron Macaulay, poet and politician), and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.[14] Further, three prime ministers sought Dr. Gully’s care, including William Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli, and George Hamilton-Gordon, as well as Queen Victoria herself. Hamilton-Gordon described Dr. Gully as “the most gifted physician of the age.”[15]

Dr. Gully was not the only homeopathic physician to provide clinical care to cultural elite of the 19th century. In fact, many of the leading politicians, clergy, literary greats, musical geniuses, royalty and wealthy classes were known patients and even advocates of homeopathy.[16]

Although there is no evidence that Darwin knew that so many other well known “cultural heroes” sought the care of Dr. Gully, Darwin was pleased to hear when other people he knew received treatment from Gully. When his second cousin, William Darwin Fox, the man who introduced Darwin to entomology and to Dr. Gully, had seen the doctor, Darwin expected him to have benefited from water cure and to be much stronger.[17] When one considers that Darwin had previously received much medical care without positive results, Darwin’s letter to Fox on December 7, 1855, confirmed a different experience with Dr. Gully: “Dr. Gully did me much good” (his emphasis).

Darwin’s Continued Water Cure and Homeopathic Treatment

There is a long history of antagonism to homeopathic medicine from conventional physicians and their organizations. There is also a history of antagonism to water cure,[18] though while homeopathy has persisted internationally as a minority school of thought and practice,[19],[20],[21] water cure as a medical treatment for chronic ailments has become marginalized or is hardly utilized today except by a minority of naturopathic physicians.

Darwin and many of his biographers seemed to have highlighted “water cure” as Gully’s effective treatment because they simply could not believe that homeopathic medicines could provide any benefit. However, one must wonder if hydrotherapy alone could have provided these significant health benefits, especially in the first week of treatment that Darwin experienced. What is additionally intriguing about this story of Darwin is that it confirms an ultimately essential observation of truly effective healing methods: that they can and will be effective whether or not the person believes they will work.

Hardened skeptics insist that homeopathic treatment could not have helped Darwin (or anyone) and suggest that hydrotherapy must have been the method of therapeutic benefit. And yet, few orthodox physicians of that day or today would even consider using hydrotherapy for people with complex disease processes.

When Dr. Gully retired from his full-time practice in Malvern in the late 1850s, he chose Dr. James Smith Ayerst (1824–1884) as his replacement. Not surprisingly, Ayerst was also a homeopathic physician. He served as assistant surgeon in the Royal Navy, was physician to Great Malvern, Worcestershire, ran a hydropathic establishment at Old Well House, Malvern Wells in conjunction with that of Dr. Gully, and later, practiced homeopathy and hygienics in Torquay, Devon.[22]

Darwin’s wife Emma wrote to W. Darwin Fox: “We like Dr. Ayerst, tho’ he has not the influence of Dr. Gully. Dr. G. it is hopeless to try to see tho’ I must say he has been to see Ch. [Charles] twice & he quite approves of his treatment.”[23] Darwin visited other hydrotherapy spas as well. In 1857 and 1859 he visited Moor Park, run by Edward Wickstead Lane, MD, a physician and hydrotherapist (not a homeopath). And perhaps not by happenstance, Darwin’s famed book On the Origin of Species was at the printing press, while he was at Ilkley Wells, a spa operated by Edmund Smith, MD, another homeopathic physician.[24]

On March 5, 1863, Darwin wrote a letter to J. D. Hooker (a botanist), noting: “A good severe fit of Eczema would do me good, and I have a touch this morning & consequently feel a little alive.”[25] On this same day, he wrote his cousin W. Darwin Fox: “I am having an attack of Eczema on my face, which does me as much good as Gout does others.”[26]

What is interesting here is that Darwin was either taught or learned from his own experience a common observation in homeopathy: that symptoms on the skin or in the extremities (the symptoms of gout manifest in the big toe) are important externalizations of the disease process that should not be suppressed through conventional drugs. Because homeopaths and other advocates of natural medicine recognize the “wisdom of the body,” symptoms, even acute and painful ones, are ways that the body is working to push out and externalize internal pathology.

Darwin’s Survival of the Shrewdest

Despite Darwin’s personal experiences and significant successes as a homeopathic patient, he never publicly acknowledged the benefits he received. And despite his own experiments on plants using homeopathic doses (these amazing experiments are discussed in detail in my article published in Oxford University Press’ journal, eCAM), he never used the word “homeopathic” in his public writings. Although these actions may seem surprising, Darwin’s decision to avoid reference to homeopathy was a shrewd part of his own survival strategy, and as true expert on evolution, Darwin knew the importance of survival of his terrestrial body and of his ideas.

Ultimately, even though Charles Darwin had a long-time skepticism of homeopathic medicine, his life and health seems to have been impacted by it, and he engaged in experimentation that verified the power of extremely small doses on plants. Further, he was found to express appreciation for the contributions to science that select homeopathic physicians were known to provide.

2009 is the year in which we honor Charles Darwin’s 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal book. When commemorating the many vital contributions that Charles Darwin made to science, we should not ignore the therapeutic contributions that allowed Darwin to live beyond his own life expectations and that played an important role in improving his physical and mental health.

[For a more detailed review of Darwin’s experiences with homeopathy and homeopathic doctors, see the above referenced article that was published in a medical journal. For people who are interested in other personal experiences with homeopathic medicines by other famous and internationally renowned physicians and scientists, see my most recent book, The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy. This book includes the experiences with homeopathic medicines by Sir William Osler (the “father of modern medicine”), Emil Adolph von Behring (the “father of immunology”), Harold Randall Griffith, MD (the “father of modern anesthesia”), Charles Frederick Menninger, MD (founder of the Menninger Clinic), C. Everett Koop, MD (former U.S. Surgeon General), Brian Josephson, PhD (Cambridge professor and Nobel Laureate), amongst many others. This book also describes similar experiences by 11 U.S. Presidents and numerous other world leaders, six popes and numerous leading spiritual leaders, as well as world-class literary greats, corporate leaders, women’s rights leaders, monarchs, sports superstars, musical geniuses, and television and film stars. Although skeptics of homeopathy tend to minimize personal experiences from patients, the patients in THIS book are from many of the most respected cultural heroes of the past 200 years. If people want to know what these amazing people did in their life to help them achieve the highest level of human performance, then perhaps their experiences with and understandings of homeopathy may shed light in part on how they did so.]


[1] Recently, some scientists have speculated that Darwin suffered from systemic lactose intolerance (Campbell, AK, and Matthews, SB. Darwin’s illness revealed, Postgraduate Medicine Journal, 2005, 81:248–251.), but this remains speculation and may at best represent only one aspect of a more complex disease syndrome.

[2] Darwin correspondence project. Letter 1236 — Darwin, C. R. to Hooker, J. D., 28 Mar 1849.

[3] Gully, James Manby. Water Cure in Chronic Disease. London: John Churchill, 1846, 46.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Keynes, R. Darwin: His Daughter and Human Evolution. New York: Riverhead, 2002.

[6] Darwin correspondence project. Letter 1234 — Darwin, C. R. to Darwin, S. E., [19 Mar 1849]

[7] Atkin, G. The British and Foreign Homœopathic Medical Directory and Record. London: Aylott, 1853, 45.

[8] Homoeopathic Directory of Great Britain and Ireland and Annual

[9] Burkhardt, F., ed. Charles Darwin’s Letters: A Selection (1825–1859). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 107.

[10] Homeopaths have consistently observed a similar phenomenon, called “Hering’s Law of Cure,” whereby patients experience an “externalization” of an internal illness. Externalizations are an important part of the healing process. Sadly, however, some patients who seek conventional medical care receive treatment to suppress these skin symptoms, pushing them back into the body and worsening the person’s overall health.

[11] Quammen, D. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution. New York: WW Norton, 2006, 112.

[12] Burkhardt, 1996, 108.

[13] Quammen, 113.

[14] Desmond, A., Moore, J. Darwin. New York: Warner, 1992, 363.

[15] Ruddick, J. Death at the priory: sex, love and murder in Victorian England. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001, 2.

[16] Ullman, D, 2007.

[17] Burkhardt, F., Smith, S. (eds.). The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, vol VI, 346.

[18] Bradley J, and Depree M. A shadow of orthodoxy? an epistemology of British hydropathy, 1840–1858, Medical History, 2003, 47:173–194.

[19] Bellavite P, Conforti A, Piasere V, and Ortolani R. Immunology and homeopathy. 1. historical background. Evid. Based Complement. Altern. Med., December 2005; 2: 441 - 452.

[20] Bellavite P, Conforti A, Piasere V, and Ortolani R. Immunology and homeopathy. 4. clinical studies—part 1. Evid. Based Complement. Altern. Med., September 2006; 3: 293-301.

[21] Bellavite P, Conforti A, Piasere V, and Ortolani R. Immunology and homeopathy. 4. clinical studies—part 2. Evid. Based Complement. Altern. Med., December 2006; 3: 397-409.

[23] Burkhardt, 1985, XI, 643.

[24] Burkhardt, 1985, XI, 361.

[25] Burkhardt, 1985, XI, 200.

[26] Burkhardt, 1985, XI, 255.

Dana Ullman, MPH, is America's leading spokesperson for homeopathy and is the founder of . He is the author of 10 books, including his bestseller, Everybody's Guide to Homeopathic Medicines. His most recent book is, The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy. Dana lives, practices, and writes from Berkeley, California.