The illnesses of Charles Darwin and his children: A lesson in consanguinity

John Hayman Fls, Gonzalo Alvarez, Francisco C. Ceballos, Tim Berra

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Charles Darwin's lifetime illness with its many disabling symptoms may be explained by an inherited pathological mtDNA mutation. Although such a diagnosis explains Darwin's illness and the strange illnesses that afflicted his Wedgwood maternal forebears, it does not explain the illnesses that affected Darwin's children. The sicknesses of the children were very different from those of the father and also different from each other. Although not directly inherited from their father, these illnesses may have been due, at least in part, to inbreeding since they were the inbred progeny from a consanguineous couple (Darwin and his wife were first cousins), a condition known to enhance susceptibility to recessive genetic disorders and infectious diseases. Darwin's inherited illness may be traced back through three, perhaps four maternal generations. Consanguinity was present in the marriage of Darwin's maternal grandparents, but the purported mitochondrial mutation appears to have been present prior to this union. The origin of any mutation appears lost in the mist of unrecorded history.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)458-468
Number of pages11
JournalBiological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 21 Feb 2017


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