Weird History
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Historical Figures Who Had Mental Illnesses or Crippling Phobias

Updated March 5, 2020 94.1k views10 items
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Mental illness through history often gets overwritten or overlooked... largely because it makes certain people's stories less tragic. ("Organic" catastrophe is always more poetic.) But many disturbed historical figures lived during times when only physical afflictions ever garnered any validity or research, leaving the mentally burdened to fend for themselves in the only ways they could.

Moreover, if mentally ill historical figures did receive treatment, it generally came in the form of history's terrifying mental asylums, those outdated horror chambers that surely exacerbated more problems than they ever solved. All in all, being mentally ill proved to be a double whammy against you: No one took your diagnosis seriously, and if they did, they imprisoned or electro-shocked you for it.

Many of the great artists and innovators of the world were also historical figures with crazy phobias - disorders that are largely absent from textbooks or biographies. Thankfully, the modern world generally shows more sympathy for famous figures with anxiety and other forms of mental illness. But victims of archaic medicine enjoyed no such privilege, and for that reason their afflictions (some of which undoubtedly contributed to the works that the world continues to appreciate today) deserve recognition.

  • Photo: Hollywood, Fawcett Publications / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Vivien Leigh became famous for her brilliant acting ability and her magnificent beauty, but her legendary professionalism often masked her daunting struggle with bipolar disorder.

    Various witnesses state that Leigh's illness initially began manifesting in the 1930s (right around the time of Gone with the Wind), but didn't reach a zenith until the 1950s, right after she won an Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire. She apparently identified deeply with the character of Blanche DuBois, and the role significantly exacerbated her own neurosis.

    According to reports, Leigh's behavior escalated from there; she once stripped off her garments in the middle of a public park, an action that led to a round of electroshock therapy. She won a Tony Award for her role in the Broadway musical Tovarich, but during her last major performance, she suffered another breakdown, forgetting her lines, speeding up the opening number, and attacking her co-star.

    Nevertheless, the chaos of her personal life was likely exacerbated by her fame. She resisted going to a psychiatrist lest paparazzi follow her there. Furthermore, when her husband, legendary actor Laurence Olivier, told playwright Noel Coward that he feared for his wife's sanity, the witty Coward retorted, “Nonsense... if anyone’s having a nervous breakdown, you are.” Truly a nuanced observation, if there ever was one.

    • Age: Dec. at 53 (1913-1967)
    • Birthplace: Darjeeling, India

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  • Photo: ACME Newspictures / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Legendary film tycoon, entrepreneur, aviator, and billionaire Howard Hughes is widely known for having suffered from a particularly debilitating species of obsessive compulsive disorder. In his final years, he barricaded himself in his bedroom, scorned almost all contact with the outside world, burned his clothing lest it be contaminated, and stored his urine in jars for “safety” reasons that remain unknown. (These incidents were later dramatized in Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film The Aviator.)

    Though Hughes was mostly sane in earlier years, some reports suggest that his profound phobia of germs may have originated in childhood. His mother constantly fretted over his health... a habit that became more obsessive after he contracted polio. At one point, the young Hughes was even said to have suffered paralysis for several months.

    Hughes's paranoia affected everyone around him; he tapped his wife Ava Gardner's phone, suspecting infidelity, and apparently “wrote a staff manual on how to open a can of peaches... including directions for removing the label, scrubbing the can down until it was bare metal, washing it again, and pouring the contents into a bowl without touching the can to the bowl.”

    • Age: Dec. at 70 (1905-1976)
    • Birthplace: Humble, Harris County, Texas, Contiguous United States, United States of America

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  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Famed ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky revolutionized dance and choreography with his elaborate, surreal, scandalous, and brilliant performances. But he became increasingly overburdened with responsibilities and demons, and tragically descended into mental illness, giving his last performance at the young age of 28.

    According to sources, Nijinsky's final descent into madness was triggered, at least partially, by the increasing stress of having to manage his own business affairs and bookings - responsibilities that cut deeply into what he truly loved to do, which was dance. Diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919, he spent most of the rest of his life in asylums.

    Nijinsky's Diary, which he wrote while institutionalized, contains a wealth of vividly creative descriptions and poignant insights. He feels “blood playing up” in his stomach after eating, muses on the impossibility of dancing before said food has “fully dropped out” of his bowels, speaks of the imagist horrors of black hair dye on white pillowcases, and laments the pervasive spiritual “dryness” of people who have ceased to live passionately.

    Nijinsky himself, however, never lost his passion, even when he was only dancing in his own head.

    • Age: Dec. at 60 (1890-1950)
    • Birthplace: Kiev, Ukrainian SSR
  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Nikola Tesla, the famous electrical engineering genius, created many groundbreaking inventions, but not many know that he also had a rather romantic phobia of pearls, a condition known in less poetic and more clinical terms as oystersaritisphobia. According to sources, Tesla could not bear looking at the gems, or even having them out of sight in the next room: When his secretary once came into his office wearing a pearl necklace, he reportedly sent her back home.

    Other sources claim the pearl aversion was an aesthetic thing rather than a full-blown phobia (or chronic mental illness). But either way, the “pearl” of Tesla's intellect has definitely never stopped shining, or rolling through time to inspire the creation of modern-day addictions like the smartphone.

    • Age: Dec. at 86 (1856-1943)
    • Birthplace: Smiljan, Croatia, Eurasia

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