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15 Badass Sick People Throughout History

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Being chronically ill is nothing new. People throughout history have been plagued by maladies of all sorts and they did it with even less understanding of what the hell was going on then we do in this day and age. So here are a few of the badasses throughout history who did their thing despite having a lot going on health wise.

1. Julius Caesar

Caesar’s illness is more of the well-known ones on this list. It was long believed that he suffered from epileptic fits throughout his life, but it’s now believed these fits were actually small strokes. The original diagnosis of epilepsy actually came from Roman historian Suetonius around 122 A.D. in conjunction with several other testimonies. “Suetonius tells of ‘sudden fainting fits’ and ‘nightmares’; Appian writes of ‘convulsions’; and Plutarch describes Caesar as suffering from ‘distemper in the head’ and ‘epileptic fits.’” The epilepsy theory prevailed until 2015 when a study determined his symptoms more aligned with mini-strokes. It’s unclear how long a life he would have been able to live had he not been stabbed, but it’s definitely a wonder he was able to have one of the greatest political minds all while it attacked him.

2. Charles Darwin

The father of evolution was not so blessed in the genetics department. He suffered from cyclic vomiting syndrome throughout his life and it is now believed this was caused by a mitochondrial disorder. This man was on a boat for five years while vomiting constantly. In addition to the vomiting symptoms, he also experienced headaches, visual disturbances, eczema, recurrent boils, panic attacks, heat and cold intolerance, hysterical crying (dacrystic seizures) and “stroke-like” episodes. He passed down all of these conditions to his children and grandchildren definitely pointing to a genetic component. It’s almost ironic that he would be known for the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

3. Harriet Tubman

Unlike a lot of others on this list Harriet Tubman was not born with her chronic illness, rather it was a result of a horrible beating during her childhood in slavery. She was struck with a two-pound weight while protecting another slave and suffered a traumatic brain injury. As a result, she suffered from narcolepsy and seizures for the rest of her life. With this condition, she walked from Maryland to Philadelphia to freedom, making the trip 19 times and guiding around 300 slaves to freedom.

4. Alfred the Great

OK, I’m not even going to lie and say that Alfred isn’t my favorite. We kind of have similar issues so I guess I relate to him in that way but I also really love the show “The Last Kingdom,” so that’s probably it. Also, he kind of has a reputation as the most perfect man in history. Anyway, my man defended the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom against Viking invasion and set about unifying England. He did this all while suffering from hemorrhoids, severe abdominal pain and GI issues that have led scholars to post-humously diagnosis him with Crohn’s disease. Just think of this man’s poor butt riding a horse into battle.

5. Abraham Lincoln

Did you know Lincoln would have died of cancer if not for John Wilkes Booth? Well, we don’t know that for sure, but three of his sons and his mother died from cancer and researchers may have found the reason why. It’s been long thought that Lincoln’s height was a result of Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder. However, it’s now believed he may have had multiple endocrine neoplasia, a rare, inherited disorder in which several endocrine glands develop noncancerous or cancerous tumors or grow excessively without forming tumors.

6. Winston Churchill

Not all chronic illnesses are physical. It is believed that Churchill lived with mental chronic illness in the form of bipolar disorder. Some of his symptoms included depression, suicidal intention, mania and a decreased need for sleep. He called his depression his “black dog” as it was always hounding him. Churchill died of a stroke but new evidence is showing that he may have been suffering them throughout his later life and his family went to extreme lengths to hide it.

7. George Washington

Washington was as resilient as they come. Had he been alive during modern medicine he probably would have been a centenarian given his ability to overcome just about everything. He may not have had a specific chronic illness but he was definitely ill a lot. During his life, he experienced the following deadly diseases: diphtheria, tuberculosis, smallpox, dysentery, malaria, quinsy, carbuncle, pneumonia and epiglottis. Quinsy is an antiquated term for tonsillitis or a sore throat and carbuncle is a term for possible melanoma but it’s unclear if the bump was cancerous or not. When he was 67, he went for a ride on his horse on a cold winter day and returned with a sore throat. Doctors thought he had too much blood in his system so they bled him… of 80 ounces of blood (35% of all the blood in his body). He died, not of a sore throat but of blood loss.

8. Franklin D. Roosevelt

The story of FDR is relatively well-known among American schoolchildren: the future president was struck by polio that eventually left him paralyzed from the waist down, but that didn’t stop him from being the leader of the free world. There’s much more to the story though. Polio is typically contracted by children and FDR supposedly contracted it at age 39. It was thought to be odd at the time but they had no other reasonable diagnosis to offer. Modern researchers have floated Guillain-Barré Syndrome as a more likely culprit for his paralysis as there are some symptoms that simply don’t match polio. For example, polio paralyzes limbs unevenly and doesn’t move up the body as happened with Roosevelt. He also experienced intense pain when people touched his paralyzed legs which isn’t commonly seen in polio.

9. Teddy Roosevelt

Well, what about the other Roosevelt? Contrary to his reputation as a vigorous, energetic outdoorsman, he also lived with asthmaHe nearly died from the condition several times during his childhood and his father encouraged exercise as a remedy. His doctors also prescribed cigars, if that gives you any indication about how little was known about asthma at the time. The exercise worked though, and while he had trouble at first, it’s thought that without the asthma diagnosis Roosevelt would not have been the avid outdoorsman he was.

10. Frédéric Chopin

For nearly 140 years no one questioned that the legendary composer died of tuberculosis, but historians are revealing he may have been suffering from a respiratory illness for most of his life. He had a chronic cough and very low exercise tolerance that was made worse in the winter. Also, despite being 5’6″, he only weighed very little during his adulthood. It’s now believed that Chopin had been suffering from cystic fibrosis which eventually led to his death.

11. Jane Austen

While Austen was believed to be healthy for most of her life, she spent the last two years of her life in bed stuck down by a mysterious illness. In 1964, she was posthumously diagnosed with Addison’s disease, a disorder in which the body does not produce enough hormones. However, modern researchers have found that a lot of her symptoms do not match up with Addison’s disease and it has been ruled out as a possible affliction. New evidence shows that she was not entirely healthy throughout her life as previously believed and in fact, she was particularly susceptible to infection, lived with unusually severe infective illnesses, as well as chronic conjunctivitis that impeded her ability to write. It’s even now thought that “Pride and Prejudice” was written while she was already suffering from whatever it is she would die from. There are several theories about the underlying cause of her death/illness including drinking contaminated cow’s milk, Hodgkin’s Disease (lymphoma), or Brill-Zinsser disease, a form of typhus.

12. Ludwig van Beethoven

It’s commonly known that the man regarded as the greatest musician of all time was deaf. Historians have long believed that Beethoven lived with a host of medical issues but they weren’t able to nail down exactly what. It is now believed that Paget’s disease of bone contributed to his deafness by compressing a cranial nerve. Paget’s disease may have also caused him to have a large head, a prominent forehead, a large jaw and a protruding chin. Eventually, his hat and shoes did not fit because of bone enlargement. He ended up dying of cirrhosis of the liver due to alcohol consumption, but large amounts of lead in his blood may have caused some lead poisoning symptoms to occur as well.

13. King George III

For the historically inept who have somehow made it this far in this list, this is the bad guy from
“Hamilton.” Known as “Mad King George” later in life, historians thought they found evidence of a physical, genetic blood disorder that may have contributed to his reputed “madness.” Porphyria symptoms include aches and pains as well as blue urine, something King George reportedly suffered from. (I mean I’d be pretty mad too if I had smurf pee.) However, new research has shown that King George likely did suffer from some sort of mental illness in the form of bipolar disorder. Analysis of his letters and historical accounts have shown signs of mania that came and went with the rest of his symptoms. Also, the blue urine? One of his medications contained gentian, a bright blue flower that can turn the urine blue when ingested.

14. Sir Isaac Newton

Another man known for his “madness,” Newton may also have had bipolar disorder. Due to the repeated diagnosis of bipolar disorder for great men in history, it’s become known as the disease of geniuses — but that really diminishes the amount of suffering these people went through. Newton experienced bouts of rage and depression throughout his life that led him to become very solitary and focus on his studies. His reputation for “mad” ideas though, was more in the realm of outlandish science that ended up being correct. You know, like gravity. His personality quirks were observed less often by society at large and instead by the few people he had a relationship with. Historians have analyzed the many lists he made and have also reasoned that Newton may have been on the autism spectrum.

15. Stephen Hawking

I’m including him on here because one day when we’re a space-faring civilization they will know who Stephen Hawking is. That’s my defense and I’m sticking to it. When Hawking was 21, he was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. On average, a person with ALS lives just two to three years after symptoms begin to appear; Hawking lived with the disease for 55 years. Researchers believe the difference may be how young Hawking was at the onset, which is now known as juvenile-onset ALS. In addition to progressive muscular atrophy, a lot of ALS patients develop dementia. Hawking, however, was still giving lectures and publishing papers until right before his death. Hawking was a man of means and he was able to afford healthcare that likely extended his life, but it’s also believed his superior intellect and determination were ultimately what aided his survival long past his prognosis.

Illness doesn’t need to define your story, these people sure didn’t let them.

Follow this journey on Forever a Mess, Jess.

Getty image via WINS86

Originally published: July 10, 2019
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