A study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine argued that the Italian painter and sculptor Michelangelo may have suffered from a bout of osteoarthritis that left his hands gnarled and aching in his old age. The Renaissance master’s potential ailment offers a fresh perspective on his accomplishments, but he’s not the first person to receive a retrospective diagnosis from modern day researchers. Below, find out more about Michelangelo and six other historical figures who may have suffered from debilitating physical or mental illnesses that weren’t known during their lifetime.
Artist Michelangelo Buonarroti was still working on sculptures and architectural projects just a few days before his death at age 88, and he may have done it despite having hands that were riddled with arthritis. The recent diagnosis comes from of a group of medical researchers who analyzed portraits of the Renaissance master from different points in his life. Unlike early paintings, the portraits completed when he was between the ages of 60 and 65 depict his left hand as limp and deformed—a symptom of the degenerative joint disease osteoarthritis. The team found further evidence of the ailment in personal correspondence in which the elderly artist complains of “gout” and notes that he was unable to reply to a letter “because my hand refused to write.” Michelangelo’s condition may have been accelerated by the decades of chiseling and painting required to produce such masterpieces as the Pieta, the David and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but the researchers also note that his commitment to hard work may have helped him keep the use of his hands until late in his life.
2. Julius Caesar—Epilepsy or Mini-Strokes
Evidence that the famed Roman general and dictator suffered from ill health is found in the writings of several ancient historians. The chronicler Plutarch describes Caesar as being afflicted with “distemper in the head” and notes that he once fell into a fit in which “his body trembled, and some of the papers he held dropped out of his hands.” Suetonius, meanwhile, says Caesar was struck by a similar sickness on two different occasions during his military campaigns. Both Plutarch and Suetonius suggest that Caesar’s symptoms were caused by epilepsy, a chronic neurological disorder that was well known to the ancients. The Romans called the disease by various names including “morbus caducus” (“the falling sickness”), and it was widely believed at the time that its victims were touched by the gods. While Caesar’s symptoms—dizziness, depression, seizures—have traditionally been ascribed to epilepsy, a more recent study from 2015 argued that he might have actually suffered from a string of Transient Ischemic Attacks, or mini-strokes.
3. King George III—Porphyria
George III ruled Britain for more than half a century and presided over the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution, but throughout his life he also suffered recurring bouts of insanity that left him incapacitated and occasionally confined to a straitjacket. In the 1960s, researchers combed through the King’s medical records and concluded that he may have suffered from porphyria, a genetic condition that affects the blood and produces such symptoms as abdominal and muscle pain, anxiety, hallucinations and discolored urine—all of which George was known to exhibit. Porphyria has since become the most popular explanation for the King’s madness, but in recent years the theory has been criticized by scholars who argue that bi-polar disorder or some other mental illness is the more likely candidate. Meanwhile, a 2005 analysis of hair samples found the even if King George did suffer from porphyria, his symptoms were likely exacerbated by arsenic poisoning from his doctor-prescribed medicines.
4. Harriet Tubman—Narcolepsy
The woman responsible for leading hundreds of slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad may have also suffered from a chronic sleep disorder. The ailment likely stemmed from an incident during her childhood on a Maryland plantation, when an overseer threw a lead weight at another slave and instead hit Tubman on the head, fracturing her skull. She experienced headaches and seizures for the rest of her life, but she also showed signs of narcolepsy, a brain condition which can cause rapid and unavoidable bouts of sleep. Tubman was known to go through “spells” and trance-like states, and one witness reported that she would drift off into “a heavy sleep even when conversing, from which she will after a time arouse and resume the thread of her narrative where she left off.” While her symptoms suggest she probably had narcolepsy, some have also suggested that she suffered from cataplexy, a condition that causes sudden muscle weakness and paralysis.
5. Samuel Johnson—Tourette Syndrome
18th century author Samuel Johnson is renowned for penning witty essays and compiling one of the first comprehensive English-language dictionaries, but many medical researchers also consider him an early case study in Tourette syndrome. Throughout his life, acquaintances noted that the writer exhibited the kinds of involuntary verbal and physical tics associated with the neurological disorder including repetitively shaking his head and rubbing his left knee with the palm of his hand. “He made various sounds with his mouth,” his friend and biographer James Boswell wrote, “sometimes giving a half whistle, sometimes making his tongue play backwards, from the roof of his mouth, as if clucking like a hen….” Johnson was also known to exhibit compulsive behaviors such as counting his steps and touching every light post he passed on the street. Despite being one of the most talented and respected authors of his era, his symptoms occasionally led to public ridicule. One friend wrote that upon witnessing Johnson’s gesticulations as he walked down a London street, a group of “men, women, and children gathered around him, laughing.”
6. Jane Austen—Addison’s Disease
In 1816, the author of such beloved novels as “Emma” and “Pride and Prejudice” came down with a host of mysterious ailments including exhaustion, back pain, skin discoloration, “bilious attacks” and fever. Just one year later, she was dead at the age of 41. Much speculation has been devoted to Jane Austen’s sickness in the years since, with the most common diagnosis being that she suffered from Addison’s disease, a malfunction of the adrenal glands that wasn’t known to medicine until several years after her death. Though slow in its onset, the disorder is known to cause changes in skin color during its late stages, which may explain Austen’s claims that her complexion had turned “black and white and every wrong color.” Other scholars maintain that the novelist’s symptoms appeared far too sporadically to be Addison’s disease, and instead argue that she may have suffered from tuberculosis, lymphoma or even arsenic poisoning.
7. Abraham Lincoln—Depression
For most of his life, the sixteenth president was plagued by a feeling of gloom and despair that he dubbed the “hypo.” He often spoke of suicide as a young man, and once told an acquaintance that he never carried a pocketknife out of fear of hurting himself. Lincoln dealt with his infrequent breakdowns through humor, but his blue moods later continued during his time in the White House, when he faced the stresses of the Civil War and the untimely death of his 11-year-old son, Willie. Contemporaries often remarked on the Great Emancipator’s sorrow. His friend Henry Whitney noted that, “No element of Mr. Lincoln’s character was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.” The severity of Lincoln’s “hypo” remains a point of contention among historians today, but many believe that he may have suffered from clinical depression. Author Joshua Wolf Shenk has even published a full-length book on the subject titled “Lincoln’s Melancholy.”