Weird History
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The Signature Afflictions Of Historical Figures

Updated June 21, 2019 37.1k views14 items

Most famous historical figures fought for their beliefs and overcame incredible odds to change the world we live in. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was born in a log cabin in Kentucky and went on to become a revolutionary US president. There are even a few figures born into nobility who managed to achieve remarkable feats and are therefore remembered more prominently than others in their royal bloodline. After all, there have been countless kings and queens.

Now imagine achieving legendary change while battling a painful affliction. There are many famous figures who struggled with chronic illnesses so memorable that their suffering became synonymous with their historical image. FDR's private polio has impacted his public persona, for example. 

These famous diseases might reveal unexpected facts about the personal lives of a few historical titans. Even some of the worst faces in international history suffered surprising ailments.We may never know how Michelangelo's arthritis affected his masterpieces, or how Jane Austen kept writing in spite of her sickness, but learning about their illnesses can help shed light on those remarkable people.

  • Photo: Clara Grosch / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    It has long been believed that Julius Caesar suffered from epileptic seizures, as first documented by the historian Plutarch. According to Plutarch, Caesar's first recorded fit occurred during his campaign in Hispania, late in the famous dictator's life. There is no mention of how intense his fits were, but if historians commented on them, they were noticeable at the very least. 

    The famously tough former warrior made a life out of being legendarily stoic along with his fellow fighters. Though it is likely he wasn't one for complaining, a debate about the exact nature of his illness has been ignited in recent years. Unfortunately, there is little to go on beyond Plutarch, but some modern scientists believe that the fact that there are so few accounts of Caesar's fits means that they could have been a series of small strokes caused by a cardiovascular disease rather than epilepsy. 

  • Photo: Jacopino del Conte / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Every once in a while, fate has a sense of irony. Michelangelo, the artist who conjured whole worlds out of his hands, may have suffered from arthritis. From his letters, we know that Michelangelo constantly complained of "gout," which used to be a term for any unidentified ache or pain.

    Researchers currently claim that the great master was arthritic for many years, and that his work with a hammer and chisel only heightened the pain. Through looking at his handwriting, as well as a few portraits painted of him in his later years, historians have postulated that his left hand was borderline useless by the time he passed at the age of 89.

    What makes this idea even more remarkable is Michelangelo's persistence, even in the face of arthritis. He continued sculpting right up until the end of his life, although he gave up on writing letters years before.

  • Samuel Johnson's Tourette's Syndrome

    Tourette's Syndrome is widely misunderstood. It is the the inability to control certain tics, which vary from person to person.

    Samuel Johnson was a famous man of letters, the creator of the first English dictionary, and, researchers believe, someone who suffered from Tourette's. Numerous contemporaries recorded strange tics and rituals that Johnson exhibited, seemingly without control. In Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell wrote:

    His anxious care to get out or in at a door or passage, by a certain number of steps from a certain point, or at least so that either right or left foot... should constantly make the first actual movement when he came close to the door or passage.

    There is some doubt about this posthumous diagnosis, simply because Johnson suffered from so many depressive and anxious tendencies that it is hard to confirm Tourette's as one of his many afflictions.

  • Photo: Elias Goldensky / Wikipedia / Public Domain

    Franklin Roosevelt's polio is such a significant part of his image today that it's hard to imagine it was ever unknown. Yet, for many years, Roosevelt hid his ailment from the American people. FDR was paralyzed from the waist down and was confined to a wheelchair. In the modern age of 24/7 presidential coverage, it would be impossible to conceal this fact. 

    Polio struck FDR in 1921 when he was the Democratic vice presidential nominee. It could have completely sidelined his political career, but FDR would not be stopped, and went on to serve four terms as US president.

    Despite this painful illness, FDR maintained a sense of humor. In 1945, while addressing Congress at the Yalta Conference, he quipped:

    I hope that you will pardon me for this unusual posture of sitting down during the presentation of what I want to say, but I know that you will realize that it makes it a lot easier for me not to have to carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs.