The claims are everywhere: on posters and T-shirts, on the Internet and in books, even sometimes headlining the national news. Thomas Jefferson's eccentricities were actually a form of autism. Albert Einstein's genius flourished despite a learning disability. And Winston Churchill overcame a stutter and later suffered from Alzheimer's disease.
The conclusions, made many years after the deaths of these famous men, grab the public's attention, inspire today's patients and bring in money for research and advocacy. There's only one problem: Often, the diagnoses are wrong."It's a lie. It's like saying to somebody, `Churchill overcame this; therefore you can.' Maybe you can, but it shouldn't be a lie, or a misrepresentation," said Dr. John Mather, a Washington physician who has debunked several medical myths about Churchill. "It's a matter of forthrightness and accuracy."
The roll call of historic disease sufferers seems endless: Hans Christian Andersen was supposed to be dyslexic. Marie Curie may have had a form of autism. Frederick Chopin could have suffered from cystic fibrosis. Sergei Rachmaninoff may have had Marfan syndrome.
Scholars, physicians and history buffs have always been fascinated by the medical stories behind famous people. The connections are also compelling to the public, who feel they know these figures. At the University of Maryland Medical Center, doctors have been doing post-mortems on historical figures for a decade, and they have grabbed headlines and worldwide attention.
"There's something very powerful about this, particularly for people who don't have any direct experience with the disease," said David Shenk, an author who recently spent time examining similar claims for his book on Alzheimer's, The Forgetting. After extensive work, he concluded Churchill didn't have the condition. Said Shenk: "It's so easy to be reckless about this."
Those who make these retrospective diagnoses, sometimes called "pathographies," say they have researched biographies and other evidence. But historians say old records can be scanty and unreliable. Few if any contemporaries are alive to speak for the dead. And most of the time, the bodies can't be examined.
Yet plenty of people are publicizing their spin on history.
The Stuttering Foundation of America ran a full-page ad in a May issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, with a photo of Churchill and this headline: "The voice of freedom never faltered, even though it stuttered." The foundation cites five sources, all dated before 1975, making references varying from a "slight stutter" to a "stutter that took him years to overcome." Mather and others say Churchill never had a stutter; they point to tapes of his speeches and a medical evaluation that show Churchill simply had a lisp on his s's and p's.
Likewise, a color poster of six accomplished figures from history, including Andersen, Churchill, Thomas Edison and Einstein, highlights them as people who had learning disabilities and managed to succeed. Created almost 20 years ago by the Hill School in Fort Worth, Texas, the poster has gone into its third printing and is hanging in 41 states and 13 countries. Lucille Helton, the school's former principal, said a committee, looking for famous figures to inspire children, found the information in the local library.
But experts who have closely studied the lives of these men say there is little or no evidence that four of them had a learning disability. Thomas Edison got kicked out of school for not paying attention and later had a hearing problem, but historians say there isn't any proof that he had a learning disability. Similarly, besides speaking later than most children, Einstein never revealed in his schoolwork or voluminous writings problems consistent with a learning disability, experts say.
"Something that can't be proved is taken very blithely as fact," said Marlin Thomas, an expert in learning disabilities at Iona College who published an analysis of the claim about Einstein. Thomas became curious when he saw the diagnosis showcased on T-shirts, Web sites, ads and even brochures from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Two years ago, Danish researchers published an analysis of Andersen's letters, poems and diaries and concluded a long-standing claim that Andersen was dyslexic was wrong.
It's unclear where the rumor started that Churchill had Alzheimer's. But the connection circulated enough that recently, when Charlton Heston announced he had the degenerative disease, ABC's World News Tonight and Fox television named the former British prime minister as another prominent person who died with the condition.
In a celebrity-driven culture, the strategy is a popular public relations tool. Pharmaceutical companies are increasingly hiring stars with health problems, such as actress Kathleen Turner and skater Dorothy Hamill, to promote medicines. Patient advocacy groups post names of prominent patients on Web sites such as "Famous Texans with Disabilities," "Famous People with Asthma," and a quiz that matches celebrities with their disorders.
"It's just one of the pitiful facts of our society that you have to have a famous person to get the attention," said Abbey Meyers, president of the National Organization for Rare Disorders.
But those who have advanced some of these connections say they have done their homework, closely reading biographies and looking for symptoms and patterns. Jane Fraser, the Stuttering Foundation's president, said Churchill's stutter wasn't always evident because he memorized his speeches.
"I think he [Mather] doesn't have an in-depth understanding of stuttering," Fraser said. "And I think by denying that Churchill stuttered, he's trying to turn it into something to be ashamed of."
Norm Ledgin, a former educator and newspaper editor, has written about famous people with autism. The Kansas man was reading biographies of Jefferson when he began to notice dozens of traits consistent with a rare form of autism, Asperger's syndrome, that Ledgin's teen-age son has. Ledgin wound up writing a book detailing the connection, called Diagnosing Jefferson.
Wanting to encourage and inspire young people with autism and their parents, Ledgin published a follow-up book this year that described other famous characters who he says most likely had a form of autism, including Curie, Charles Darwin and Einstein.
"I've done it with people who can't defend themselves against me, but I've looked very closely at their childhoods. I based it on what their biographers said," said Ledgin, who has spoken about his book around the country. Parents and children with various forms of autism have said the book turned their lives around.
Seeing is believing
But physicians and others expert at diagnosing these types of disorders, like Dr. Rebecca Landa, director of the autism center at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, say seeing and questioning the patient in person is critical.
In a few cases, scientists can examine bits of hair or other evidence to solve an old medical mystery. Researchers are testing President Abraham Lincoln's DNA to determine whether he had Marfan syndrome. Other figures have sparked debates that may never be settled.
Scholars have advanced several theories about Joan of Arc, including epilepsy, tuberculosis and psychiatric disorders. Others have argued over the maladies that ailed Vincent van Gogh, explaining them as migraines, epilepsy and bipolar disorder.
Historians worry that some of the people making these diagnoses after the fact have preconceived ideas of what to look for.
"Jefferson is such a complex and varied personality, that you can pull out any strands to support what you want," said J. Jefferson Looney, editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series, referring to the diagnosis of autism.
Ultimately, like much of history, it boils down to how one interprets the evidence. And using the facts selectively can lead to the wrong conclusion.
If these conclusions are new or unusual, they're much more likely to get attention in the news media. In the case of Edgar Allan Poe, scholars had said for years that the writer died from chronic alcoholism. When doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center decided to review the case as an exercise, they offered a new cause of death: rabies. The conclusion became news around the world and even was used as the final question on the television game show Jeopardy.
Only now, years later, in reviewing the case, has Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak, the Poe exercise organizer, determined that the doctors' analysis was skewed by the facts that he had been given.
If one can never know for certain, some people ask, "Is there really anything wrong with giving out these diagnoses?"
More conditions will be diagnosed and treated, advocates say. The public will better understand confusing conditions. And patients and families will have hope.
Karen Simmons, whose 12-year-old son has a form of autism, eagerly posted the information about Einstein and other famous people on her Web site, Autism Today, which gets about 200,000 hits a month.
"It's quite an inspiration that my son could do something that Einstein could do, that he could do something great for society," the Canadian woman said. "What does it hurt? Except possibly the reputation of a person who's not here anymore."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times