The Mental And Physical Illnesses Of Famous Historical Figures

Throughout history, many diseases were not well-understood, especially mental illnesses. But that didn’t stop famous historical figures from getting sick. Many people suffered from chronic ailments and didn’t even know it.

Centuries later, historians have sorted through records and diagnosed people with illnesses. Some led to their deaths, such as the prominent political figure whose brain gradually turned to stone. Others were plagued by depression, seizures, or sporadic sleep schedules throughout their lives. Discover which famous historical figures had life-defining illnesses, both physical and mental.

Even With Arthritis, Michelangelo Continued To Work

A portrait Of Michelangelo Buonarroti shows him pointing to his sketchbook.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Michelangelo Buonarroti worked on art and sculptures until the day he died at age 88. But he may have been working through acute arthritis. Research in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine stated that Michelangelo couldn’t even write letters near the end of his life.

Later portraits of Michelangelo show his left hand becoming limp and deformed, a visible sign of osteoarthritis. Although the artist complained of gout in his writings, there was no other evidence that his symptoms were gout. Back then, no one would have understood that he had arthritis.

Julius Caeser Suffered From Frequent Mini Strokes

A statue of Julius Caesar by Nicolas Coustou shows him wearing a crown of laurels.
Prisma/UIG/Getty Images
Prisma/UIG/Getty Images

Writings from the early 100s suggest that Julius Caesar may have suffered from seizures. Plutarch claimed that Caesar had a “distemper of the head” in which “his body trembled.” Suetonius described Caesar as having “sudden fainting fits.” The Romans believed that he had epilepsy, although they called the disease “the falling sickness.”

The epilepsy theory remained prevalent until 2015. Then, a new study suggested that his symptoms were closer to a string of Transient Ischemic Attacks, or mini-strokes. Either way, the seizures actually benefitted him. The Romans believed that the gods touched those who suffered from seizures.

How Vladimir Lenin’s Brain Turned To Stone

Vladmir Lenin is seen at Parade in Red Square, 1919.
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Apic/Getty Images

Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin seemed to die of mysterious circumstances. Late in his life, Lenin experienced fatigue and strokes until he passed away. Some believed that he had been poisoned. In 2004, neuroscientists proposed that he may have had syphilis.

But newer research in 2016 argues this. After analyzing documents on his death, researchers concluded that he might have had cerebral atherosclerosis. The condition calcifies the arteries inside of the brain, essentially turning Lenin’s brain into stone. Lenin had many precursors to the disease, such as chronic headaches and insomnia.

Marie Antoinette Had A Syndrome Named After Her

A 1906 painting shows Marie Antoinette with a rose.
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Have you ever heard of Marie Antoinette syndrome? It occurs when a person’s hair suddenly turns white. According to the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the name stems from three witness accounts of Marie Antoinette. During the French Revolution, Antoinette’s hair rapidly turned white after her capture. She was 38 at the time.

Marie Antoinette syndrome is often caused by stress, which is what some historians believe happened to the queen. Sometimes, the hair’s color will return after the stress has subsided. Other times, it can be caused by balding or an autoimmune disorder.

Do You Know Why Ludwig Van Beethoven Was Deaf?

A 19th century pastel portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven shows him playing the piano.
DEA/A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images
DEA/A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images

Many people know that the composer Ludwig van Beethoven was deaf. But the cause of his deafness is still disputed. Beethoven’s hearing vanished over time, which suggests that an illness may have contributed.

In 2015, a pathologist found notes on Beethoven’s autopsy. The musician’s skull had grown, with a large jaw and protruding chin. These are signs of Paget’s disease, where new bone tissue grows on bones, causing them to become misshapen. According to researchers, Beethoven’s hearing worsened as the bones in his head compressed and warped.

Explaining Alexander The Great’s Strange Head Pose

A bust of Alexander The Great shows him looking up and to the left, circa 300 BC.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If you look at portraits and sculptures of Alexander the Great, you may notice that he has a raised chin and turned head. Some historians believe that he was not trying to appear confident. Instead, the pose could have been the result of a rare disorder called Brown’s syndrome.

Brown’s syndrome is a condition that limits the movement of peoples’ eyes. According to a 1996 study, Alexander had to hold his head upward and to the left in order to see straight. However, not all historians agree with this diagnosis.

Samuel Johnson Had Tourette Syndrome

In this painting, Samuel Johnson sits at his desk with his hand on paper.
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Samuel Johnson was an 18th-century essayist and painter famous for writing the first English dictionary. Research in The BMJ claims that he may have had Tourette syndrome. Johnson’s friend and biographer, James Boswell, wrote that he made many erratic movements and noises.

According to Boswell, Johnson would repeatedly shake his head and rub his left knee with the palm of his hand. He was also making sporadic noises, such as whistling and “clucking like a hen.” Sadly, these tics often led to public ridicule and teasing.

After A Head Injury, Harriet Tubman Got Narcolepsy

Harriet Tubman sits in a chair while wrapped in a robe circa 1913.
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

The woman who lead thousands of slaves to freedom across the Underground Railroad also had several health issues. When she was 12, an overseer threw a piece of lead at another slave but missed and hit her head. Tubman suffered from intense headaches and seizures for the rest of her life.

Other symptoms suggest that she may have suffered from narcolepsy, a chronic sleep disorder. She would apparently drift into heavy sleep “even while conversing,” and then wake up and resume the story where she left off. Narcolepsy is defined by sudden bouts of heavy sleep.

Sixteen Generations Of Inbreeding Made King Charles II Of Spain

A 17th century portrait shows Charles II of Spain.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Although King Charles II was a prominent ruler in the 1600s, he suffered from many health issues. As a result of 16 generations of inbreeding, he could barely chew his food with his large Hapsburg jaw and engorged tongue. He was also infertile and could not have children.

Historians believe that Charles II had several genetic disorders. One of the most likely is pituitary hormone deficiency, which gave him a weak stature and digestive issues. The second might have been tubular acidosis, resulting in a head that was much larger than his body.

Throughout The Civil War, Abraham Lincoln Had Depression

In this portrait by George Healy, President Lincoln leans forward and places his head on his hand.
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Katherine Young/Getty Images

Throughout his presidency, Abraham Lincoln wrote about an ailment that he called “hypo.” Many of his colleagues said that Lincoln often appeared gloomy. His law partner William Herndon claimed that “his melancholy dripped from him as he walked.”

Today, many scholars and clinicians agree that Lincoln was likely suffering from depression. The strain of the Civil War and the death of his 11-year-old son, Willie, caused a lot of tension in the president’s life. Author Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote an entire book about it called Lincoln’s Melancholy.

There Might Be More To Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Polio

Franklin Roosevelt delivers a radio address.
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Getty Images

In 1921, Franklin Roosevelt contracted a paralytic illness that left him paralyzed from the waist down. At the time, people diagnosed it as polio. But many historians disagree. Polio usually appears in childhood, and Roosevelt did not get sick until age 39.

On top of that, Roosevelt’s symptoms didn’t match polio. He had intense pain while touching his legs, which is not seen in polio. Modern historians have suggested Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an immune disorder in which the immune system attacks the nerves. That would explain symptoms appearing later in life.

Why Some Believe That Adolf Hitler Had Parkinsons

Four photos show Adolf Hitler addressing a crowd in 1944.
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Keystone/Getty Images

The infamous German dictator Adolf Hitler may have had underlying health issues throughout World War II. In the 1930s, some reports said that he had a tremor in his left hand and a shuffling walk. These symptoms continued into the ’40s and worsened near the end of the war.

Some have speculated that Hitler might have had Parkinson’s disease. His other symptoms, such as disturbed sleep and a lack of motor skills, align with this diagnosis. Others believe that Hitler’s symptoms resulted from substance abuse, as he was frequently prescribed methamphetamine.

Why Charles Darwin Had Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome

In 1875, Charles Darwin sits in a chair.
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Getty Images

Charles Darwin did not perform his experiments in good health. After returning from his voyage in 1836, he suffered from frequent vomiting, headaches, hysterical crying, and “stroke-like” seizures. It is clear that Darwin had cyclic vomiting syndrome, although the cause is still unclear.

Some historians believe that he had a mitochondrial disorder, as he seemed to pass down illness to his children. Others disagree because his children’s symptoms seem different than his. Another theory in The BMJ suggests that he may have had lactose intolerance, as his symptoms appeared shortly after eating.

What “Black Dog” Plagued Winston Churchill?

A 1954 photograph shows Sir Winston Churchill addressing a crowd at a microphone.
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Former Prime Minister Winston Churchill was plagued by mental ailments throughout his years. He suffered from depression, insomnia, fatigue, and weight fluctuation, which he called a “black dog” in his writings. Historians still debate over what Churchill’s diagnosis actually was.

The most popular theory is bipolar disorder, but Dr. Carol Breckenridge of the Winston Churchill society disagrees. Bipolar is incredibly debilitating, and it’s unlikely that Churchill could have achieved as much as he did with the disorder. Other explanations include major depressive disorder or manic episodes.

Biblical King Herod The Great Had Chronic Kidney Disease

A 16th painting portrays Jesus approaching Herod the Great.
PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Herod I, the Roman king of Judea, is best known for his appearance in the Bible. He was a real king who had many health problems throughout his life. He experienced intestinal pain, intense itching, breathlessness, gangrene, and convulsions.

In 2002, scientists from the University of Washington concluded that Herod might have had chronic kidney disease. These account for all of his symptoms except for the gangrene. That may have been the result of a rare infection that led to Herod’s death, the scientists explained.

What Killed Jane Austen?

In this 18th century portrait, Jane Austen sits at a chair.
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

In 1816, Jane Austen was at the height of her career, reaping success from her novels Emma and Pride and Prejudice. Suddenly, she came down with an ailment that included skin discoloration, exhaustion, back pain, and fever. She died the year after at the age of 41.

Many historians have speculated on what killed Austen. Doctor Zachary Cope suggested that it could have been Addison’s Disease. But Dr. Katherine White, who suffers from Addison’s herself, disagrees. She believes that it was most likely a bad case of tuberculosis.

Explaining Isaac Newton’s “Madness”

A 1665 artwork shows Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree and thinking.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton became known for his “madness,” and not for his forward-thinking ideas. Since his childhood, Newton seemed to flip from episodes of rage to depression.

Historians believe that Newton had bipolar disorder, which caused him to have severe mood swings. He would often experience long periods of regret, sadness, and rage. Newton eventually became a recluse, and people described his condition as “melancholy.” Others believe that his symptoms more accurately reflect manic disorder, although bipolar remains the most prevalent theory.

King George III May Have Had A Genetic Blood Disorder

A 1763 by Allan Ramsay portrait shows King George III of England.
National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images
National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images

For centuries, people believed that King George III was “mad.” He was incapacitated for insanity several times between the Seven Years’ War and the American Independence. Some historians believe that King George actually had porphyria, a genetic condition that affects the blood. His reported symptoms–anxiety, hallucinations, and discolored urine–align with this condition.

In 2005, an analysis of George’s hair samples suggested that he did have porphyria. But eight years later, researchers from the University of London asserted that he also had a mental illness. According to them, symptoms listed in George’s writings also align with bipolar disorder.

How Painter Edvard Munch Created The Scream

Edvard Munch stands in front of several of his paintings, 1938.
APIC/Getty Images
APIC/Getty Images

Edvard Munch was a Norweigan painter most famous for his painting The Scream. Many art historians believe that The Scream was inspired by Munch’s struggles with illness in early childhood. He once wrote that “sickness, madness, and death were the black angels that guarded my crib.”

In his diary, Munch recorded some heart difficulty and panic attacks. He also had to be incarcerated for mental breakdowns. His sister suffered from schizophrenia. Modern psychologists have theorized that Munch might have had bipolar disorder, mania, or psychosis.

Teddy Roosevelt Never Overcame His Asthma

Theodore Roosevelt saves to a crowd in 1912.
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During his childhood, the 26th American president Teddy Roosevelt had debilitating asthma. Despite his reputation as a passionate outdoorsman, he often had difficulty breathing and exercising. Roosevelt claimed that he overcame his asthma through a vigorous exercise routine.

In The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, researchers disagreed that Roosevelt’s asthma went away. He still experienced symptoms later in life. His story of “overcoming” asthma was simply influenced by Roosevelt’s worldview. Doctors prescribed him cigars as a treatment, so they clearly did not know much about asthma.

Alfred The Great Likely Had Crohn’s Disease

A 9th century art piece shows King Alfred the Great.
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Throughout his rule, the English king Alfred the Great clearly suffered from some disease that was not well-known in the 9th century. Biographer Bishop Asser wrote that the king experienced “a sudden severe pain that was quite unknown to all physicians.”

Although many believed that Alfred was cursed, a look into writings from his time suggests that he may have had Crohn’s Disease. He received medication for, constipation, pain in the spleen, and “internal tenderness.” Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel disease that can cause all of these symptoms and more.

Tuberculosis Did Not End Frédéric Chopin’s Life

Frederic Chopin is portrayed in a pencil drawing.
Kean Collection/Getty Images
Kean Collection/Getty Images

Polish composer and pianist Frédéric Chopin passed away at age 39, apparently from tuberculosis. But 200 years after his death, researchers began to argue the tuberculosis diagnosis. Evidence suggests that Chopin suffered from some illness for most of his life.

Chopin’s symptoms included loss of weight, respiratory infections, and severe breathing problems. An Australian study suggested that the composer may have had cystic fibrosis. But in 2017, an examination of Chopin’s heart found evidence of pericarditis, a rare form of tuberculosis that creates sac-like tissue around the heart.

King Tut Had Many Different Diseases

An ancient statue portrays King Tutankhamun of Egypt.
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Tutankhamun, better known as King Tut, ruled Egypt during the 1300s BC. Although he had a long nine-year reign, Tut suffered from many diseases. In 2006, researchers conducted DNA tests in his tomb. They discovered traces of malaria, Kohler disease, and inbreeding.

Kohler disease is a rare bone disorder in which a patient’s foot becomes painfully swollen, which King Tut’s was. He couldn’t even walk on his foot unaided. Malaria was common during the time, and inbreeding was the norm in royal bloodlines. Tut’s parents were likely siblings, and he married his half-sister.

Historians Still Don’t Know How Sick Edgar Allen Poe Was

A photograph of Edgar Allan Poe is from 1904.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Horror author Edgar Allen Poe clearly suffered from some ailment throughout his life, but historians still aren’t sure what. His death in 1849 accompanied him hallucinating, mumbling incoherently, and wearing someone else’s clothes. Many historians believe that Poe had some type of mental illness.

Many clinicians believe that Poe suffered from depression and possibly bipolar disorder. Another theory suggests Wernicke encephalopathy, a neurological condition that affects the nervous system. In the 1990s, a physician reviewed the autopsy details and said that it was rabies. But with a lack of information, we may never know.

Emily Dickinson’s Damaged Kidneys

A colored portrait shows Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, circa 1846.
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Emily Dickinson was a famous 19th-century poet who lived most of her life in isolation. In her later life, Dickinson felt weak and often fainted. After she died, her physician diagnosed it as Bright’s disease, an ailment of the kidneys.

But later historians disagree. Based on her symptoms, it is more likely that Dickinson had high blood pressure and heart troubles. She might have died from heart failure or brain hemorrhage. Other symptoms come from nephritis, which is the result of chronic kidney disease. That could explain why she alienated herself.

How Paranoid Joseph Stalin Was

In 1900, a poster of Joseph Stalin shows him standing above Russian citizens and pointing upward.
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Historians have long theorized that dictator Joseph Stalin suffered from some kind of mental disorder. Stalin’s physician, Alexander Myasnikov, wrote that he lacked empathy and carried a strong inferiority complex from his difficult childhood.

Historians have suggested what Stalin might have had. In 1993, a study in Political Psychology assumed that he had manic depressive disorder. However, more recent research from Columbia University concluded that he had paranoid personality disorder. Many of his symptoms align with this disorder in the DRSM, as he was constantly distrustful of others.

Alfred Hitchcock Might Have Died From Kidney Failure

Alfred Hitchcock wanders through the arches in Cambridge, 1966.
Peter Dunne/Express/Getty Images
Peter Dunne/Express/Getty Images

Sir Alfred Hitchcock, the famed director of over 60 movies, passed away in 1980 at 52 years old. Although his cause of death was never announced, he had suffered from a few illnesses throughout his life. He had a pacemaker in his heart and arthritis in his hands.

Hitchcock had also been suffering from chronic kidney disease. Some historians believe that he eventually died of kidney failure. The symptoms right before his death remain unclear; a hospital spokesman said that he “just didn’t feel good” and that his condition was not serious.

Albert Einstein May Have Been On The Spectrum

Physicist Albert Einstein sits in a chair while taking notes.
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Getty Images

Albert Einstein may have been a genius inventor, but he struggled to socialize with others. As a child, Einstein experienced speech delays and often repeated sentences to himself. As an adult, he had a strict diet and cleanliness standards for both himself and his wife. These facts have led some historians to believe that Einstein was on the autism spectrum.

Psychology professor Michael Fitzgerald proposed that Einstein had Asperger’s, a high-functioning disorder on the autism spectrum. Slow speech development and inflexibility are telltale signs of this disorder, which was not understood in the early 20th century.

Nikola Tesla Likely Had OCD

Nikola Tesla tinkers with a device in his laboratory.
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Getty Images

Famous inventor Nikola Tesla is believed to have had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). He felt compelled to do activities in threes. When he rented a hotel room, the number had to be divisible by three. He also curled his toes 100 times a day, believing that they stimulated his brain cells.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, he was also a bit of a germaphobe. Tesla ensured that all of his belongings were clean and that his food was properly boiled before he ate it. On top of OCD, some historians believe that Tesla struggled with dementia shortly before his death.

Thomas Edison Nearly Lost His Hearing After Scarlett Fever

Thomas Edison listens to his machine through a stethoscope in his ears.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Thomas Edison may be well-known for creating the lightbulb, but he could not hear his invention. At the age of 13, Edison caught scarlet fever. The disease damaged his ears and left him almost deaf. However, some historians believe that there is more to the story.

Some researchers believe that Edison also had several untreated middle-ear infections. Edison never became entirely deaf, and he said that he heard things “pop” inside of his ears. He also tried to invent a hearing aid but was ultimately unsuccessful.