The Tragic Death Of Charles Darwin's Oldest Daughter

Charles Darwin was one of the most groundbreaking and controversial scientists of his day. Indeed, his views on biology and evolution not only challenged existing religious dogma, it shattered the scientific foundations that governed how the thinkers of his day considered Blacks (and by extension, the concept of slavery), natives, and the rigid class system.

Unfortunately for Darwin, he also had the misfortune of being centuries ahead of his time in his personal life. He was involved in his children's lives at a time when most men of his stature would have farmed them off to hired help. Diseases claimed the lives of some of his children, a century and a half before modern science would effectively eradicate them. And, his views on biology forced him to reckon with whether he made a mistake in marrying his wife, in light of the tragic death of one of his kids.

This is the story of the heartbreaking death of Annie Darwin, Charles Darwin's oldest daughter.

Annie Darwin died at the age of 10, possibly of tuberculosis

Annie Darwin was born March 2, 1841, the second child of Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma Wedgewood, who was also his first cousin. As Janet Browne noted in her book, "Charles Darwin: Voyaging," at the age of 8, the young lass and her two sisters contracted scarlet fever, and her health declined.

Annie's parents tried valiantly to help their sickly and dying daughter by taking her to the English spa town of Great Malvern, England. There, according to JSTOR, she was subjected to "water treatment" that consisted of heating her body to the point of perspiration under hot lamps, then soaking her in icy water and rubbing her vigorously with cold towels.

It didn't work, and Annie succumbed to her illness on April 23, 1851, just a few weeks past her 10th birthday, possibly from tuberculosis.

"We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age ... she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & shall ever love her dear joyous face," Charles Darwin later wrote in a memoir.

Annie's death caused her father to question his marriage

Charles Darwin was devastated by the death of his young daughter. Uncharacteristic for men of his time, he was a devoted and attentive father, and indeed, the two were known to have an affectionate relationship, as Browne wrote in her book. His daughter's death also made Charles Darwin question his marriage.

As Ohio State News explained, Darwin had, in his study of biology, come to understand the importance of cross-breeding, which is to say, the value of producing offspring by pairs of parents who aren't closely related genetically. This biodiversity acts as a hedge against diseases that can be transmitted through inbreeding.

Unfortunately for Darwin, he'd married his first cousin and produced children with her, and he frequently worried that he'd doomed them to sickness and death.

"He fretted that the ill health of his children might be due to the nature of the marriage, and he came to that because of his work on plants. He realized that with breeding of any kind, it's better to cross-breed than to put close relatives together," said researcher Tim Berra.

Annie Darwin's death probably didn't cause her father to give up religion

For over a century, Darwin and his writings have been the bane of a subset of Christians. Specifically, some believe that humans didn't evolve from a common ancestor shared with chimpanzees and other primates, but rather were created by a benevolent God, in accordance with the narrative in the Old Testament Book of Genesis.

According to authors John Van Wyhe and Mark J. Pallen, via, something of an historical urban legend exists that suggests that Darwin, who was raised a Christian, gave up his religion after the death of his daughter Annie — the "Annie Hypothesis," as Wyhe and Pallen call it.

However, the two researchers aren't buying it.

"There is little or no supporting evidence. Furthermore, we argue, there is sufficient evidence that Darwin's loss of faith occurred before Annie's death," they wrote, noting that Darwin himself had written, years before Annie was even born, that he was having second thoughts about the religious dogma in which he'd been raised and educated.