Friday, December 6, 2013

The Life, Love, and Medicine of Charles Darwin's Physician

by Michelle Shine

In the beginning of the 19th century Samuel Hahnemann, a German pharmacist, discovered modern homeopathy. Disenchanted with the medicine of his day, he experimented with substances to ascertain what they would do to a healthy body. By chance, Cinchona Bark (quinine) was one of the first preparations he imbibed and in doing so he contracted all the symptoms of malaria.

It was a Eureka moment; Cinchona Bark was known to be a successful cure for malaria. Thus Hahnemann proved an ancient theory formulated before by Hippocrates, like cures like. He was still unhappy with his discovery though, the side effects of crude medicine often outweighed the benefits and he began to experiment with smaller and smaller succussed doses until he arrived at the infinitesimals, which he found to be safe and powerfully effective. This is homeopathy as we practice it today.

In the mid 19th century, a doctor who studied at medical school alongside Charles Darwin also had misgivings about the efficacy of allopathic treatment.

Born in Jamaica, James Manby Gully was the son of a wealthy coffee plantation owner. He was a serious bald man who sometimes wore lunettes. He believed in women’s rights and thought many of their problems were due to their selfless, suffering role in life. By the time Gully was thirty he had settled in England and had opened several retreats, one of them a “water cure” clinic in Malvern with a medical partner James Wilson where Gully also prescribed Hahnemann’s homeopathic medicine.


A combination of an extreme form of hydrotherapy and homeopathy saw positive results for patients, and positive results for Gully too. He grew rich, earning £10,000 a year (the average wage realised by a skilled carpenter was £70). As his reputation grew, so did the illustriousness of his clientele. William IV’s consort, Queen Adelaide - who had the city in Australia named after her, attended the clinic many times. Florence Nightingale went there when exhausted and ill after the Crimean War, and returned there in 1867, after which she went on to live a fruitful and healthy life until she was 90 years old.

When Alfred Lord Tennyson suffered seizures triggered by the inability to endure grief and financial ruin, he sought relief in several different clinics and treatments to no avail before he became a patient of Gully’s. But after Gully’s homeopathic treatment, Tennyson wrote to his friends that he no longer suffered from hypochondria. Can seizures be the result of hypochondria? Well, hypochondria or not, Tennyson’s mother agreed that the cure was successful. She is reported to have said of Gully, "he is a very clever man."

Yet it is Charles Darwin, Gully’s old medical school classmate who was his most surprising patient. For Darwin was a true sceptic of Hahnemann’s medicine. In a letter to a W. D Fox in September 1850, Darwin wrote:

"You speak about Homœopathy; which is a subject which makes me more wrath, even than does Clair-voyance: 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."

But when Darwin suffered from a bout of stomach pains and vomiting which the conventional doctors failed to relieve, he read James Gully’s book The Water Cure in Chronic Disease, and soon booked himself in for the cure. At the clinic under Gully’s care he was subjected to heat treatment followed by cold water wraps, cold foot baths, a strict diet, long walks and homeopathic medicine, to all of which he obediently succumbed. He very quickly improved, and in 1855 he wrote to a friend, "Dr Gully did me much good," demonstrating ‘survival of the most adaptable,’ a term that he was later to coin.

Even stranger was that Gully, himself a member of the British Homeopathic Society and a man who used homeopathic remedies with great success, was also to some degree a sceptic and is quoted in the British Medical Journal in November 1861 as saying, "It may shock the homeopathic world when I say that I never much cared for the doctrine of 'like curing like'; and I do not believe it to be of the universal application that they suppose."

One wonders if his doubts were born of a conflict with his beliefs in his water cures or if it was because, like all homeopaths then and now, his prescriptions were not infallible. For even with an honorable profession such as homeopathy where practitioners use medicines that can’t possible harm anyone and with individual concern and integrity, they do sometimes get it wrong. To err is human as the saying goes.

One such failure was Darwin’s daughter Annie who was suffering from persistent indigestion that progressed into bilious fever, and who sadly died on April 23rd 1851 under Gully’s care.

When Darwin’s own symptoms returned he sought the expertise of a Dr Lane, another practitioner of hydrotherapy, but one that did not believe in clairvoyance and mesmerism or prescribe homeopathic medicine. But in 1863 when Darwin’s illness had worsened to such a degree and with no abatement of symptoms after consulting with Dr Lane, his wife, Emma insisted that he return to Gully, which he tried to do but Gully at the time was unavailable. Darwin wrote to his friend CR Fox, "Gully will be a great loss and I hardly know who to consult there. I must be under an experienced man, for I could not stand much hard treatment."


Unfortunately, neither the water cure nor homeopathy helped Captain Alexander Ricardo, a drinking man who eventually died of alcohol poisoning leaving behind a young widow, Florence.

Gully was 62 years old at the time, but his sympathies for the plight of women, especially those who suffered the abuse of alcoholic men, was a character trait that had gained the respect and trust of Florence Ricardo, and she began to consult with him for herself. Gully was already separated from his wife who was 13 years his senior and even though Florence was just 26 years old at the time their relationship soon turned into romance.

Florence’s parents were enraged with the liaison. They wanted a more conventional coupling for their daughter. Two years later they got their wish when Florence was introduced by her housekeeper to Charles Bravo, another Jamaican born, but this time one of her own generation. Charles was an up and coming young barrister and the two very quickly fell in love putting an end to the young woman’s affair with the substantially older doctor.

Charles Bravo and Florence were married, but their story does not end happily. Just four months after the wedding Charles Bravo met with his demise from antimony poisoning. It happened, apparently, after a row with Florence about her alcohol consumption.

He also had a toothache. Whether the poison was fed to him by his wife, or taken by himself as a painkiller or as a suicide attempt is unclear. And although Gully was out of the picture and clearly not implicated in any way, he was criticized in the Times for his prior relationship with Florence, and thereafter Gully’s reputation as a successful and renowned physician had changed overnight into "that wicked old doctor".


Human nature hasn’t changed much over the intervening 150 odd years. The British press still gossip and sway public opinion and homeopathy is still derided despite some incredibly high profile modern day cures:

Barbara Windsor, star of the famous British comedic Carry On films cites homeopathy in her autobiography as being the catalyst that cured her ME.

Roger Daltry, lead singer of The Who, told The Times newspaper in 2008, ‘Homeopathy saved my son’s life’.


Michelle Shine lives in London, England. For twenty years she ran a successful homeopathic practice. She is the author of What About the Potency? A homeopathic textbook now in its third edition and The Subtle Art of Healing, a novella which was longlisted for the Cinnamon Press Novella Award in 2007. Her debut novel, Mesmerised,  published by Indigo Dreams is out now in paperback in the UK and on Kindle worldwide. Her short stories have appeared in Grey Sparrow, Liar’s League, Epiphany, and several collections. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck University.

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