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: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Jane Austen was writing right up until the end of her life, finally succumbing to a disease that has, for years, been documented as Addison's disease. Addison's disease is a disorder of the adrenal gland that has become synonymous with Austen over the years. It struck her at the age of 40 and left her with only two more years of life. Modern research has raised some serious challenges to the Addison's diagnosis, however. 

    One recent paper in the BMJ medical journal makes a compelling case that Austen actually suffered from lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system also known as Hodgkin's disease. Researchers claim that a particular pattern of fever that Austen reports in her letters is "virtually diagnostic of Hodgkin's disease."

    If Hodgkin's disease was indeed the diagnosis, it is remarkable that Austen kept up her good humor during her decline, as the ailment can be very painful. Her letters from this period are unfailingly witty, courteous and still have the ring of her brilliant novels.

  • Photo: Alexander Gardner / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Abraham Lincoln's depression struck him at an early age and haunted him throughout his rise to political prominence. During this time, Lincoln was regularly described as garrulous and fun-loving. He would often turn to works of humor to distract from his depression, and the jokes he learned during these times actually became an important part of his public persona and his private conduct, allowing him to draw people together and put them at ease.

    His presidency wore on his resilience, however. He wrote of the trials he faced as president, "Could I have anticipated them, I would not have believed it possible to survive."

  • Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S33882 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

    Adolf Hitler depended on dangerous substances during the final stages of WWII. He, along with a few other high-ranking members of the Third Reich, including Hermann Goering, were prescribed methamphetamine to counteract various complaints of suffering. Hitler's dependency, however, may have been covering a larger neurological ailment.

    Many contemporary researchers now believe Hitler had Parkinson's disease. Many people noticed Hitler exhibited Parkinson's most famous symptom, an involuntary trembling of the hands. Albert Speer, the Third Reich's Armament Minister, later wrote:

    In 1944 Hitler was shriveling up like an old man. His limbs trembled, he walked stooped with dragging footsteps. His uniform, which in the past he had kept scrupulously neat was stained by the food he had eaten with a shaking hand, his right hand, indicating that, in 1944, his Parkinsonism was bilateral.

  • Photo: Hans Holbein the Younger / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Henry VIII had a variety of physical ailments later in life, but perhaps none affected him so deeply as his leg ulcers. Despite his current image as a man of many illnesses, he was supposedly quite healthy as a young man. According to an ambassador, "His Majesty is the most handsomest potentate I have ever set eyes on. Above the usual height with an extremely fine calf to his leg and a round face so very beautiful it would become a pretty woman." 

    He only began physically declining later in life, and his physical decline was accompanied by paranoia and tyranny. This process was precipitated by two things: a jousting accident which gave him migraines, and leg ulcers, which limited his mobility.