Today is the anniversary of Darwin’s death in 1882, and I am prompted to post this in response to a peculiar question. “Just read Carl Zimmers Evolution, a triumph of an idea. In it he states that Darwin, on his death bed cried out to god? How could this be if he had denounced religion and god?”
It’s quite true that Zimmer does briefly mention the death of Darwin:
…Emma caught him in her arms when he collapsed at Down House. For the next six weeks she cared for him as he cried out to God and coughed up blood and slipped into unconsciousness. On April 19, 1882, he was dead.
The question is very peculiar because it’s as if this person had read that one paragraph about his death, and nothing before it. The page and a half before that was all about Darwin’s religion, and no, he had not denounced religion. He had renounced Christianity, but on the existence of god he declared himself an agnostic. He refused to write publicly on the subject of religion, and was even reluctant to discuss it in his letters. As we still do today, he pointed out that scientists who believed in evolution could also be devout Christians, mentioning Asa Gray in particular. And most importantly, he kept his doubts quiet out of respect for his wife, who was strongly Christian. When he cried out to God, it was the simple response of a man in great pain, who had been brought up in the Church of England, who had trained to be a parson, and had lived his life in the company of religious men and women with whom he had only affection. Creationists who insist that Darwin had to be a radical atheist who sought to destroy religion are just falsely demonizing the man.
Another biographer who recounted the death of Darwin was Janet Browne.
He died on the afternoon of 19 April 1882, after sinking very low for two or three days beforehand and suffering what Emma called a “fatal attack” at midnight on the 18th. There was no deathbed conversion, no famous last words. “I am not in the least afraid to die,” he apparently murmured to Emma. “Remember what a good wife you have been.” Allfrey signed the death certificate giving “Angina Pectoris Syncope” as the cause of death, the gradual ceasing of the heart. He was seventy-three.
The most painfully detailed description of Darwin’s last days is in Desmond and Moore’s biography.
The pain came on just before midnight. It was brutal, gripping him like a vice, tightening by the minute. He woke Emma and begged her to fetch the amyl from the study. She darted from the bedroom and became confused, finally calling Bessy. They took minutes to find the capsules. Charles, in agony, felt that he was dying but unable to cry out. As he slumped unconscious across the bed, Emma and Bessy returned. They rang for a servant and, propping him up, gave the brandy. It trickled through his beard and down the nightdress to the quilt. Struggling, they forced his head back and poured it into him. Emma was distraught, thinking it the end.
Seconds later he spluttered and retched; his eyes flickered open. She pressed close to him, searching his face for some sign of recognition. ‘My love, my precious love,’ he whispered, barely audible. ‘Tell all my children to remember how good they have always been to me.’ He choked and grimaced. Emma clasped his hand tightly—it was so awful, words failed her. He started again, fully conscious now, looking into her eyes, ‘I am not in the least afraid to die.’ He became calm.
She sent for Dr Allfrey, who arrived at two o’clock. He applied mustard plasters to Charles’s chest, which gave some relief. Just after seven the servants brought breakfast up and he managed to take a few mouthfuls before falling asleep. Allfrey, finding his pulse stronger, wondered that he had ever regained consciousness. The doctor left at eight.
Immediately Charles started vomiting. It was violent and prolonged. When there was nothing left the nausea kept on in waves, overpowering him. His body heaved and shuddered, as if possessed by an outside force. An hour passed, then two. Still he gagged and retched. ‘If I could but die,’ he gasped repeatedly, ‘if I could but die.’ Emma clung to him, trembling, as another spasm started. He was cold, clammy, his skin grey and ghostlike. Blood spewed out, running down his beard. She had never seen such suffering.
Frank returned from London before ten. Bessy sent Jackson for Henrietta, who arrived by one. She ran upstairs to find her father sleeping and Emma about to break down, trying to comfort Frank. Henrietta insisted that she take an opium pill to rest, which she did without a murmur. She had slept less than two hours in twenty-four.
Charles awoke in a daze, and asked to be propped up. He recognized the children and embraced them with tears. Frank spooned soup and brandy for him while Henrietta lightly rubbed his chest. Then the nausea struck and he convulsed him again. ‘Oh God,’ he cried helplessly, ‘oh Lord God,’ and began to faint. Henrietta gave him smelling salts, which he sniffed eagerly, falling back exhausted. ‘Where is Mammy?’ he called in a thin, hollow voice. They said that she was resting. ‘I am glad of it,’ he sighed. ‘You two dears are the best of nurses.’ He grew drowsy. It confused him; he thought that he was sinking, and with a ‘feeble quivering motion’ held out his hands to be lifted. But as Frank raised him, the pain came on. He begged for a little whiskey, remembering that Dr Allfrey had suggested it.
Time stood still for Henrietta. Frank, taking his father’s pulse at intervals, knew that the hour was near. At twenty-five minutes past three, while sitting up, Charles groaned ‘I feel as if I shd faint.’ They called Emma, who came immediately and held him. His face dropped, but after a few teaspoons of whiskey he revived, and she helped him to lie down. But the pain was excruciating in any position. Rising, he began to faint again. The doorbell rang—the doctors. Henrietta raced downstairs to meet them as Charles clutched at Emma. Frank shouted for them to come instantly, and Bessy.
He lost consciousness. They saw it was hopeless. There was only the deep stertorous breathing that precedes death. Emma cradled his head on her breast, swaying gently, her eyes closed. His life ended at four o’clock in the afternoon, Wednesday 19 April, 1882.
He was just a man, a man who died in his old age in the company of his family, after much suffering, like so many others. His last moments were neither a testimonial to Jesus nor a heroic stand for atheism, so let’s not use them as a rhetorical bludgeon either way.
Brown J (2002) Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Knopf, NY.
Desmond A, Moore J (1991) Darwin. WW Norton & Company, Inc., NY.
Zimmer C (2001) Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea. Harper Collins, NY.