Posted by: Rob Viens | July 9, 2012

Darwin’s Raisins

On July 9th Darwin was still seasick, but today he was at least up for writing a brief summary of the past few days in his diary:

“The weather has been most provoking; light variable breezes, a long swell, & I very sick & miserable.— This second attack of sea-sickness has not brought quite so much wretchedness as the former one. But yet what it wants in degree is made up by the indignation which is felt at finding all ones efforts to do anything paralysed.” (June 7/8/9)

It is incredible to think that Darwin was undertaking a nearly 5-year ocean voyage knowing that he suffered from terrible seasickness.  Not to mention that he would be spending much of those 5 years in some of the roughest waters on Earth.  His dedication and resolve never cease to amaze me.  Had he been less willing to suffer, he could have easily hopped onboard a ship in Rio and went back home (like Robert McCormick did). But without data from the voyage to work with, I doubt he would have written Origin and would most likely be remembered as a minor figure in the history of science. Thankfully he persisted.

Ironically, the very quote that defines Captain FitzRoy, is also true of Darwin if you replace the references to the Royal Navy with “science”:

“Those who never run any risk; who sail only when the wind is fair; who heave to when approaching land, though perhaps a day’s sail distant; and who even delay the performance of urgent duties until they can be done easily and quite safely; are, doubtless, extremely prudent persons:—but rather unlike those officers whose names will never be forgotten while England has a navy.” (Narrative, FitzRoy – in reference to the HMS Thetis wreck)

As different as the two men were, it is easy to see how they connected on some level.

Ships on a Rough Sea – painted in the 1820’s by Johannes Christiaan Schotel:

Ships on a Rough Sea - Schotel

Before leaving England, Darwin’s father (a doctor, if you recall) suggested that he eat raisins as a cure for seasickness. In writing about that “former wretched experience” to his father he shared that the “raisin cure” has some merit:

“I endured from sea-sickness is far far beyond what I ever guessed at.— I believe you are curious about it. I will give all my dear-bought experience.— Nobody who has only been to sea for 24 hours has a right to say, that sea-sickness is even uncomfortable.— The real misery only begins when you are so exhausted—that a little exertion makes a feeling of faintness come on.— I found nothing but lying in my hammock did me any good.— I must especially except your receipt of raisins, which is the only food that the stomach will bear” (Correspondence to Robert Darwin, February 1832)

Was it true or was he humoring his father?  Darwin in generally a pretty serious fellow, but everyone’s relationship with their parents is a little bit unique – so who’s to say?

Through his sister, Darwin later hears back about his father’s reaction to the news:

“Papa was much interested by your miserable account of the sea sickness you had endured, & not a little proud of his prescription of the Raisins answering so well. I think he should publish such a discovery for the benefit of all such sufferers.” (Correspondence from Susan Darwin, June 1832)

I’m guessing Darwin was eating a lot of raisins – but I have to wonder how easy they would be to find at the southern tip of the Americas. I don’t think the Chilean wine market had really taken off yet :), so I hope he stocked up! (RJV)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: