Gout, a form of arthritis caused by too much uric acid in the bloodstream, has been known throughout history as the "disease of kings." A number of affluent and powerful men and women have suffered from gout, leading many to label it an affliction of the wealthy. Associated with overeating, excessive drinking, and a life of indulgence far outside the reaches of the lower and middle classes, this common disease causes pain, swelling, and redness in the joints, especially in the big toe.
Kings and queens with gout experienced both acute and chronic bouts of the disease, and their notoriety and influence only perpetuated associations between gout and excess. Several European royals suffered from gout, as did a number of noteworthy American leaders. Whether or not gout had any impact upon the political and historical significance of those afflicted remains open to interpretation, but some pretty well-known figures had lives filled with gout-induced misery.
Historians believe Henry VIII had gout, in large part because many aspects of his lifestyle - including excessive meat and alcohol consumption - are associated with the illness. Henry VIII gained more weight as he aged, which could have increased his risk. The painful swelling caused by the so-called "disease of kings" could be acute or chronic, and the king definitely suffered from leg ulcers, mood swings, and constant pain.
In 1541, the French ambassador wrote, "The King's life was really thought [to be] in danger, not from fever, but from the leg which often troubles him." Henry's own doctors commented, "By reason of his sore leg, the anguish whereof began more and more to increase, he waxed sickly, and therewithal forward and difficult to be pleased... it was high time for us to get clear of him, in order to avoid offending him or irritating him further, having regard to his malady."
The Spanish monarch's struggles with gout may have been hereditary given his father's severe case of the disease. The son of Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, Philip II ruled Spain from 1556 until his passing in 1598.
Philip's struggle with gout began around 1568. Historical records indicate he had "been ill quite a few days with gout in the right hand, which was swollen." By some accounts, he had minor flair-ups as early as 1562.
The king wouldn't acknowledge that he was suffering from gout, but he was bled and treated for it anyway. Philip was especially prone to develop the illness given his heavy meat consumption, age, and genetic ties to the affliction. Gout left the king incapacitated by age 65. Physicians tried to alleviate his pain by draining his joints, but this only led to infected sores. Philip II succumbed to cancer, but his gout contributed to his suffering.
Benjamin Franklin had a terrible case of gout, but he wasn't the only American colonial to suffer from the affliction during the 18th century. William Pitt, for example, also struggled with the disease. Franklin and Pitt were said to have discussed gout, but it's Franklin's conversation with gout, itself, that gives us insight into the nature of his affliction.
In Dialogue Between Franklin and the Gout, written in 1780, Franklin asks Gout what he did to deserve the aches and pains brought on by the disease. Gout responds that it was the result of excessive eating, drinking, and other indulgences. Gout chides Franklin for his sedentary lifestyle, asking him why he eats "an inordinate breakfast, four dishes of tea, with cream, and one or two buttered toasts, with slices of hung beef" only to "sit down to write at your desk, or converse with persons who apply to you on business... without any kind of bodily exercise."
Franklin tries to defend his use of a carriage, but Gout responds that he should burn it or offer it to "the poor peasants, who work in the vineyards and grounds about the villages... bent and perhaps crippled by weight of years, and too long and too great labor."
In the end, Gout and Franklin agree that physicians, or "quacks," are not the answer and Franklin promises to "take exercise daily, and live temperately." Gout tells Franklin it's only a matter of time before he picks up his "old habits," cautioning Franklin about a return visit "at a proper time and place."
King Louis XVIII of France, the first king of the newly restored monarchy following the French Revolution, suffered from severe gout. He became King of France in 1814 and ruled for a decade, but he struggled with gout during the entirety of his tenure.
Already overweight and almost 60 years old, Louis XVIII treated his gout with herbal remedies like colchicum, which was believed to alleviate pain. By 1820, Louis XVIII's affliction was so severe that he was unable to resist his political rivals, the ultraroyalists, and essentially handed over the government to his brother Charles-Philippe, Count of Artois. The Count of Artois became King Charles X after Louis XVIII's passing in 1824.
Louis XVIII's gout was very much a result of his love of food. According to those who knew him, Louis XVIII could identify the origins of the meat he ate upon first bite. He paid the price, however, with legs that were gouty and gangrenous to the point that he allegedly lost one of his toes.