Review of Creative Malady: Illness in The Lives and Minds of Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Mary Baker Eddy, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. By George Pickering. London, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1974
British Journal of Psychiatry, 127, 1975, p. 93
In this interesting and entertaining work, Sir George Pickering examines the lives and careers of six very remarkable people, three men and three women. He chose them to illustrate and develop his view, previously formed, that an illness, physical or mental, that is not debilitating or disabling may play a positive part in furthering creative work. For this purpose a mental illness is better than a physical one. It can be developed to suit the circumstances; and if they change the illness may cease to have a function and disappear.
Sir George believes that Darwin's illness was a psychoneurosis. It came on in 1837 when he was twenty‑eight. Its purpose was to protect him from social intercourse and thus allow him to write the Origin of Species. This was published in 1859; but the illness, now purposeless, stayed with him till his death in 1882. As a young man Darwin was very vigorous and energetic, quite without any constitutional neurotic tendencies. But over the space of a year or so he became a hypochondriac, able to work only for an hour and a half at a time before resting. Darwin had had the opportunity to contract Chagas's disease in 1835; and this has been suggested as an explanation for his malady. Sir George does not believe it, and cites an expert in tropical medicine in his support.
The case of Florence Nightingale is rather similar. She, too, was an exceptionally energetic character; and the story of her long campaign for the reform of army health services is a heroic saga. Then, when the first battles had been won but there was much still to do, she collapsed. She was thirty‑seven. She was not long back from the Crimea, was tired and thin, and had worked relentlessly, eating and sleeping little. The collapse is easily understood; but she did not recover. She toiled on, lying on the sofa of her sitting room, seldom sitting up, rarely going out. The purpose of her illness, we are told, was to defend her from the interference of her family, and to give her the moral advantages of an invalid in driving her coadjutors into unremitting efforts.
In their different ways Freud and Proust, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mary Baker Eddy illustrate other aspects of the creative malady. In unravelling the relationship between illness and achievement, Sir George follows Freud in assuming that the symptoms of mental illness have meaning, and that functional nervous disorders have a function or purpose. They bring the sufferer nearer to some evident or concealed wish. Even those who cannot quite swallow this easy doctrine must not complain when it has stimulated such a gifted narrator to re‑tell us these fascinating stories.