Darwin’s Cold Shower Therapy. Did it Offer Relief?
Charles Darwin was under the impression that cold shower therapy gave him some relief from his infirmities. He suffered most of his adult life from a variety of afflictions, such as weakness, nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, abdominal pain, and general aches and pains which no doubt interfered with his work as well as his cherished family life. No other therapy of the day could help him. Some thought Darwin had picked up an obscure disease on is world travels. Inoculations that are a prerequisite for world travelers today were unknown at that time so perhaps Darwin was infected with any one of a hundred parasites. It would be gratifying to so many inquisitive Darwin admirers if his body, now lying in Westminster Abby, were to be examined in order to solve this age old mystery. I doubt that would ever happen.
Nevertheless a superficial examination of cryo therapy reveals that it was recently used for select psychiatric patients, who were treated by wrapping them in cold thermal sheets for varying periods of time.
A more recent cold therapy was described in the British weekly, New Scientist, July 21 – 27, 2012. In an article by Jessica Hamzelou, cold therapy was reviewed with a new twist that might explain why Darwin found some relief in it. She writes: Ice packs on muscle injuries have long been used to relieve pain, slow inflammation and hasten recovery. The latest craze is to blast athletes with down to minus 160-degree air. A cryochamber is used by the Welsh rugby union team to speed recovery after intense training sessions. All exercise causes minute cellular muscle injury that results initially in increased blood flow to that region. Cold packs slow the blood flow, lessen the damage done by swelling, and provide an insurance that subsequent blood flow will be preserved to help heal the injury. Cryotherapy slows down the action of the immune system’s chemical messengers and helps prevent long-term disability.
In addition, Darwin would have been fascinated with modern claims that those who dip into icy waters every so often are more resistant to infections and even the common cold; so says Olympic physiotherapist Phil Glasgow of the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland. French researchers at the Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (INSEP) found that a cold bath after strenuous exercise improves elite athlete’s subsequent performance. They also found that alternating between cold and warm water was more effective than iced water alone. This I knew from college 1954, when athletic trainers treated my strained ankles and pulled muscles.
Apparently, unbeknownst to most of us, cryo-therapy has been with us a long time. Darwin may have felt some relief from periodic cryo treatment, by shocking his body systems, or diminishing blood flow to certain anatomy, or possibly evoking a strong but relieving placebo effect. Research continues, athletes swear by it, and the physiological possibilities continue to fascinate us. Someone more knowledgeable than I needs to research this intriguing therapy as a possible treatment of Charles Darwin’s afflictions. If his body is unavailable for an autopsy, it’s the only other thing science can do to explain the etiology of Darwin’s syndrome.