5 Historical Figures Plagued By Horrendous Physical Ailments
When someone is a truly iconic figure in history, the sum of their accomplishments tend to trump the kind of human being they actually were. In fact, when you think about historical figures approaching legend, it’s sometimes hard to imagine them doing normal things. I’m sure for most of them, too, they don’t mind that people spend more time considering their academic discoveries or military victories than all the time they likely spent defecating into chamber pots.
Another universal truth, however, is that sickness doesn’t discriminate. Sure, money and influence can get you access to the best doctors, or you could go the weird tech billionaire route and fill yourself with young men’s blood. But if disease or sickness is in your future, there’s little you can do to avoid that fate. This remains as true for legends as for anyone else.
To that end, here are five important people from history who were sicker than you thought…
When you imagine the pharaoh Tutankhamun, you probably immediately go to one image: the gilded face represented on the death mask of his sarcophagus. One that looks very normal, resembling a run-of-the-mill looking, if incredibly shiny, teenager. Based on evidence that historians have reviewed, though, they have a pretty strong hunch that this golden portrait is an EXTREMELY flattering take on the boy king. Which isn’t too surprising. After all, nobody wants to get sent to the Sea of Reeds over an unflattering Six Flags caricature of the pharaoh.
This is all based on the fact that Tutankhamun had a litany of serious, and seriously noticeable deformities, thanks to that old classic desire to keep the bloodline pure at the cost of the heirs’ jawlines. When Tut’s remains were investigated, they revealed a laundry list of unpleasant mutations, including a cleft palate, scoliosis, club foot and dolichocephaly, meaning an extremely elongated skull. Considering the unfortunate state of his skeletal structure and what might have been going on medically in his softer bits, it’s no surprise that he died at such a young age.
Though his reign and life were both short, Tutankhamun seems to have been considered a good ruler. The same cannot be said for King Herod, who, by all accounts, was a real son of a bitch. When one of your most famous acts is trying to murder Baby Jesus, you’re probably not getting a lot of loving murals painted. But the ancient king of Judea might owe some of his sour disposition to the health problems he suffered from throughout his life, which would eventually kill him.
For a long time, the cause of his death was unknown, although there are recorded lists of symptoms, including itching, convulsions, and oh yeah, incredibly infected genitalia. Scholars in 2002 reviewed Herod’s de facto charts and came up with what they believed to be the most likely diagnosis: Fournier gangrene, something I cannot emphasize enough that you don’t Google. Fournier gangrene is a specific type of gangrene developed in the genitalia and perineum (in layman’s terms: gooch) area that even today has roughly a 20 percent mortality rate. If you have to go, hope that it’s not from something that includes both the words “necrotizing” and “genitalia.”
Darwin, the scientist responsible for one of the most important theories in all of natural history — the theory of evolution, was unfortunately and ironically not dealt the most pleasant hand of cards when it came to his own survival. He didn’t meet a young death from his illnesses, but by all accounts, the length of his life was not altogether a blessing. Continually through his life, Darwin was often sick, leading to him isolating himself for long periods.
His most prominent symptoms were deep anxiety, skin irritation and constant vomiting and nausea. The doctors of the time, as you might expect from some good old-timey medicine, didn’t have many answers for him. Today, though, after reviewing the available information, doctors have developed a theory of their own: that Darwin suffered from something called cyclical vomiting syndrome. It’s something that’s as unpleasant as the name would suggest, I assume even more so when you’ve got a beard as large and absorbent as Darwin did.
As the conductor of the Underground Railroad, Tubman suffered from an unusual mental illness that you might not expect: narcolepsy. Now, in yet another testament to the cruelty of slavery, this wasn’t a hereditary disease she developed, but was the direct result of an injury. Her skull was fractured as a young girl by a lead weight thrown by an overseer, and for the rest of her life, she would have (very understandable) headaches, seizures and the aforementioned narcolepsy.
Accounts of Tubman from the time mention a proclivity of Tubman’s to experience trance-like spells, or to doze off completely without any warning, only to reawaken later on with no knowledge that she’d ever fallen asleep. It’s even more incredible that she was able to accomplish everything she did while suffering from a disease that’s mostly used as a punchline in 1990s comedies.
Maybe better known than some of the others on this list was famous emperor and Mark Zuckerberg haircut model Julius Caesar’s bouts with what’s thought to be epilepsy. One big difference here versus the shrugging doctors of most of the other entries is that the doctors of the time were very aware of epilepsy, though they definitely had a whole lot less literature on it. They called it morbus caducus or “the falling sickness” and recorded episodes of Caesar losing body control and trembling, the same seizures an epileptic might suffer from today.
The long-term effects on Caesar’s health are, of course, unknown, due to the much more pressing medical emergency of “stabbing” that would end his life at the age of 55. An unfortunate way to go out, but I’m sure he would be honored today by his prominence in the world of gambling and mediocre pizza.