The following letter to The London Review of Books was in response to an article entitled Gutted by Steven Shapin, which reviewed A Modern History of the Stomach: Gastric Illness, Medicine and British Society, 1800-1950 by Ian Miller. The letter appeared in the 28th July 2011 edition of the LRB.
Steven Shapin writes that Darwin’s uncontrollable retching and farting seriously limited his public life (LRB, 30 June).
Some years ago, to my delight, I worked out that the great man’s full name, Charles Robert Darwin, is an anagram of ‘rectal winds abhorrer’.
Unfortunately for my anagram, the meanings of words, like species, can evolve. On the rare occasions that Darwin mentioned his gaseous problems to friends, he always used the word ‘flatulence’. Nowadays, we think of flatulence as being synonymous with farting, but, in Darwin’s day, it simply meant (as it technically still does) an accumulation of gases in the alimentary canal.
While I’m sure that Darwin, like the rest of us, must have vented his excess gas one way or the other, there is no reason to believe that his farts were uncontrollable.
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire