Posted by: dominicanoutreach | July 13, 2009

Food as Medicine

How Aramaic Food May Have Saved Darwin

by Father Dale A. Johnson

On the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth

When Roman armies expanded into the eastern frontier in the 2nd century BC they discovered foods that provided both health and pleasure. Aramaic recipes were brought back to Rome. Some of these recipes included meat pies, apple tarts, delicate custards held together by eggs and honey. Later, when Roman soldiers occupied Britain they brought with them these recipes and began a British love affair with all-things-pudding.

British cuisine is founded on Roman diets who in turn borrowed their recipes from many cultures including from Aramaic peoples, inheritors of ancient Sumero-Akkadian cultures. Rome borrowed most food dishes we think of as Roman or Italian. Even spaghetti is not Roman in origin.

Some of the earliest records of these recipes date back to 1600 BC. Among the 40,000 clay tablets at Yale University three tablets are the earliest known records and recipes from which milk, egg, and honey laced puddings have their origin. Jean Bottero, an Assyriologist in 1995 published a detailed translation and analysis of these tablets. In them we find the following terms.

dispu (syrup made from dates, grapes, or from some other fruit source but probably not “miel / honey”)

sizbu (milk)

himetu (clarified butter or ghee)

baitzu (egg)

I thought about the origin of British pudding when I recently read a cookbook written by Emma Darwin, wife of the famous Charles Darwin who wrote Origin of the Species and changed modern science forever and caused an unresolved battle between science and religion. It is interesting to think that ancient Aramaic recipes for custard may have contributed to the health and long life of one who has caused Christians so much trouble.

Let me explain why!

Emma Wedgewood could play the piano. This was important for her suiter, Charles Darwin, in 1838 as he noted in his diary that he desired a “soft wife, a sofa, and music.” These attributes in Emma helped Charles in his obsessive driven cost/benefit analysis when deciding if he should be married or remain a bachelor. All throughout their married life Emma played the piano for Charles almost daily. Charles even used the piano as a scientific instrument toward the end of his life. He had Emma play music loudly to a small box containing earthworms to see if they would wiggle. He concluded that earthworms were deaf.

What may have been more important than her piano playing skills was her cookbook created in the first year of their marriage. The 8×8 inch bound record of 104 recipes was a secret medical formulary for her chronically ill husband.

Emma Wedgewood, grand daughter of Josiah Wedgewood of chinaware fame, was married at age 30 to her first cousin Charles Darwin three years after his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle. In her first year of marriage she composed a recipe book.

Charles brought back from his world voyage ideas not only about evolution but also ideas about what he liked to eat which was modified by the onset of a chronic disease. His studious and compassionate wife carefully attended to his diet with the attention of a physician.

At first the recipe book seems strange, as if created by a child with a sweet tooth. Over one half of the book is dedicated to dairy laden sweet custard puddings. The reason for the abundance of puddings can be attributed to Crohn’s Disease suffered by Charles. He suffered greatly from the disease which is a chronic relapsing illness. Darwin believed simple pudding soothed his symptoms which included frequent vomiting and bouts of flatulence. Although it does not shorten life expectancy it does seen to have an origin in genetic predisposition. Physicians who examined Charles posited conflicting diagnosis.

Emma may have known more than the doctors, at least on the level of what settled the bowels of her husband. A keen insight into the idea that Emma created more than a cookbook is in one of the first recipes listed. It is Orange Possett. It is a medieval drink made of fruit juice, milk, eggs, and cream and sugar. This was a trusted homemade medicine and as we shall see it had all the ingredients to counter the symptoms of Charles’ several diseases.

Charles began to experience symptoms of Crohn’s disease when he was about 30 years old. This is consistent with most people who experience the disease between 20-40 years of age.

Crohn’s disease starts with a symptom free phase, in which bacterial infection of the gastrointestinal tract leads to breakdown of the epithelial barrier.1 A long time usually elapses between this phase and the appearance of clinical signs of the disease. This is followed by an overreaction of the immune system, which leads to the appearance of symptoms that depend on a number of factors, among them the onset of lesions.2,3 Darwin suffered a severe gastrointestinal infection that probably affected only his upper intestinal tract. This infection started on 19 September 1834 and had him confined to bed, in Valparaiso, Chile, until the end of October 1834. He commented in his diary as having drunk some ‘chichi’ (chicha, a lightly fermented grape juice) while visiting a gold mine, close to Rancagua, in central Chile.4,5 This wine probably broke down that last of the good bacteria in his gut and the onset of diarrhea. This episode was probably the beginning of the early stages of Crohn’s disease. On his return to England, after about two years, he noticed some mild symptoms (‘I was occasionally unwell’)5 that increased in severity during the first year of his marriage peaking with severe symptoms in September 1839. The illness would afflict him for the rest of his life.

The onset of the disease may very well have initiated the writing of Emma’s Recipe book, a book that was less a cookbook than series of pharmacological prescriptions for her new husband’s illness.

Charles believed that spice and salad were causes of his symptoms. Also his symptoms he thought were also triggered by excessive work, long visits, public lectures, and anything that stressed him.There are notes that indicate some of his symptoms included ‘incessant vomiting’, ‘vomiting every week’, ‘suffered from almost incessant vomiting for nine months’, ‘Hurrah! I have been 52 hours without vomiting’, and so on.6 These vomits occurred two to three hours after eating, and food was not present in them. His appetite was usually good, he was ‘not thin’, and ‘evacuation was regular & good’.7

His doctor Dr Bence Jones prescribed soft foods such as ‘plain pudding’ (as a result about one-half of Emma Darwin’s cookbook was dedicated to puddings).

Darwin complained of peripheral neuropathy which is common in Crohn’s disease and is usually attributed to vitamin B12 deficiency, as a result of defective absorption. Darwin was described as ‘yellow, sickly, very quiet’ in contrast to his usually ruddy complexion.8 Vitamin deficiency also produces reddening of the tongue, as occurred with Darwin.

Puddings tend to be high in Cyanocobalamin or what is known as B12. Eggs and also milk products such as cheese and cream are high in this vitamin in which Charles was deficient. Unfortunately dairy products aggravate eczema.

During his life Darwin showed a variety of skin eruptions. In his youth he had facial eczema.9 Later on, during his chronic illness, he suffered from boils that frequently coincided with an aggravation of the digestive symptoms, as well as eczema, on occasions induced by stress and accompanied by swelling of the face.

Another prominent feature of Darwin’s illness was ‘extreme fatigue’ and ‘most days great prostration of strength’. At the age of 33 years Charles was nearly an invalid. Most of the recipes are high in sugar and probably gave him some relief from fatigue.

Other than food, hydrothearpy seemed to have positive effect on Darwin.

The beneficial, although temporary, effect of cold baths, when at Malvern (‘I consider the sickness as absolutely cured’), Moor Park or Ilkley House, may be also interpreted in the light of Crohn’s disease, because cold enhances cortisol secretion, which depresses the immune system and inflammation, and lessens the symptoms of the disease.

Darwin was a keen observer of his illness, and he was convinced that plain (milk-containing) pudding lessened his sickness as tested by the recipes his wife provided the cooks of the house.

A recent paper by a psychiatrist suggests that Charles Darwin also had a mild form of Asperger’’s syndrome. This is a form of autism expressed by children and adults through social immaturity, ritualistic behavior, and obsessive attention to detail.

It is suggested that the same genes that produce autism and Asperger’’s syndrome are also responsible for great creativity and originality, according to Professor Michael Fitzgerald of Dublin’s Trinity College in February of 2009.

Darwin’s Asperger’s affected brain was highly suited to compile the information needed to launch the broader theories.

Asperger’’s syndrome gave Darwin the capacity to hyperfocus, the extra capacity for persistence, the enormous ability to see detail that other people missed, the endless energy for a lifetime dedication to a narrow task, and the independence of mind so critical to original research, he added.

Prof Fitzgerald believes that Darwin was a solitary child, and his emotional immaturity and fear of intimacy extended to adulthood.

Professor Fitzgerald said: “Darwin had a massive capacity to observe, to introspect and to analyze. From adolescence he was a massive systematiser, initially of insects and other specimens which he catalogued. He had a tremendously visual brain.

He spent eight years studying barnacles, for example, and wrote books on his observations of earthworms and even his own children if the Origin of the Species. He was a rather obsessive-compulsive and ritualistic man.

In a study a year earlier (February 2008) on the effects of biomedical intervention by parents it was found that diet had an enormous effect of the behavior of children suffering from various forms of autism. Among the highest rated forms of intervention was the use of vitamin B12 among non-drug food supplements.

Only the use of melatonin and casein (dairy) free diets rated higher. This is conflicting information as dairy products have tryptophan which triggers in the body the production of melatonin. It assists with sleep and it probably helped Charles with the control of some of the obsessive aspects of his syndrome which would have kept him awake at night. Also there is a broad spectrum of autism and variations in the genetic configuration of autistic children. So it would not be surprising that some autistic people would respond to melatonin and others to casein free diets. Apparently, the Darwins figured out what would work best in the diet of the father of evolution.

Although it is not fully understood or researched there are reports of high correlation of Crohn’s disease with Asperger’s syndrome. Both these diseases are highly amenable to dietary treatment. Emma Darwin’s recipe book turns out to be an important medical study for one of the most important patients in science history.

Did Emma’s recipe book assist in the development of the theory of Evolution? Certainly ameliorating the symptoms of her husband’s chronic condition it assisted in helping him write his famous books, although Emma did not do much of the cooking. The Darwins had servants and it is obvious from the recipes that they are written for someone who knows how to cook. But, Emma knew how to treat her husband.

What Emma did not know was how she came to inherit pudding recipes that originated East of the Euphrates where Roman soldiers far from home first tasted the delights of custard pudding.

  1. J. H. Baron and A. Sonnenberg, ‘Alimentary diseases in the poor and middle class in London 1773–1815, and in New York poor 1797–1818’, Aliment. Pharmacol. Ther. 16, 1709–1714 (2002).

  2. A. N. Crowson, G. J. Nuovo, M. C. Mihm and C. Magro, ‘Cutaneous manifestations of Crohn’s disease, its spectrum and its pathogenesis: intracellular consensus bacterial 16S rRNA is associated with the gastrointestinal but not the cutaneous manifestations of Crohn’s disease’, Hum. Pathol. 34, 1185–1192 (2003)

  3. M. A. Peppercorn, ‘Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of Crohn’s disease’, Up To Date 11 (2), 1–7 (2003).

  4. C. Darwin, letter to Caroline Darwin, 13 October 1834.

  5. . C. Darwin, letter to Catherine Darwin, 8 November 1834.

  6. G. Pickering, Creative malady (Allen & Unwin, London, 1974), p. 77.

  7. T. Butler, letter to Francis Darwin, 13 September 1882. Cited by R. Colp, ‘To be an invalid, redux’, J. Hist. Biol. 31, 211–240 (1998).

  8. R. E. Frye, M. A. Tamer and B. A. Cunha, ‘Bacterial Overgrowth Syndrome’, eMedicine (4 February), pp. 1–13 (2005).

  9. For a more exhautive analysis see

    10. for information on Asperger’s Syndrome (see


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