10 Famous People Who Battled a Genetic Disease

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Genetically inherited conditions are one of the worst scourges of mankind. As medical science advances in the war on genetic diseases, it’s interesting to look back at some notable figures in history who suffered from such terrible afflictions. Many of their cases are well documented, while others have only recently been discovered, after careful study or speculation. Here are 10 historical figures who overcame their genetic fate to make a mark on the world.


10. Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie battled Huntington's disease.

Woody Guthrie, who wrote the classic song “This Land is Your Land,” had Huntington’s disease.

A celebrated American folk musician, Woody Guthrie wrote about the migration of workers from Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl era, and shared his experiences during the Great Depression Several modern folk rockers, including Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp, and Bruce Springsteen, cite Guthrie as a major influence. Guthrie was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease in 1952, a degenerative neurological condition with no cure. This didn’t stop him from becoming an icon of the growing folk movement right up until his death in 1967.


9. Frédéric Chopin

The composer Chopin is thought to have suffered from cystic fibrosis.

Chopin, shown here in a Henryk Siemiradzki painting, is thought to have suffered from cystic fibrosis.

A composer born in 1810, Chopin was sickly most of his life and was thought to suffer from tuberculosis. Later studies, however, suggest that his persistent respiratory infections and chronic cough may have been due to cystic fibrosis, a genetic condition involving the liver and lung functions. Chopin overcame his conditions to become a virtuoso pianist and one of the most celebrated musicians of the Romantic Movement.


8. King Charles II

King Charles II of Spain may have suffered from some genetic diseases caused by inbreeding.

King Charles II of Spain suffered from several conditions related to inbreeding in the royal family.

All of us carry several genetic defects in our chromosomes; most aren’t expressed, as we carry functioning backups in the form of chromosome pairs. Inbreeding, however, can raise the probability that genetic defects can “pair up.” This occurred frequently among European royal families, and one of the most famous examples was King Charles II of Spain. Charles, who reigned from 1665 until his death in 1700, suffered from several conditions and was the most famous example of Prognathism, also known as “Hapsburg Jaw,” or a protruding jaw. There is some evidence from portraits that Marie Antoinette may have inherited the same defect. Hemophilia, a sex-chromosome-linked condition that prevents the proper clotting of blood, was also common among European royals. One of the most famous cases was Alexi Nikolaevich of Russia, whose mother became reliant on the mystic Rasputin to “treat” him.


7. Miles Davis

Jazz superstar Miles Davis lived with sickle cell anemia for many years.

Miles Davis, playing here at Nice Jazz Festival in 1989, had sickle cell anemia. © Oliver Nurock

Jazz musician Miles Davis was a pioneer in his field, a gifted trumpet player who is synonymous with 20th century jazz. Davis was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia 1961, a genetic blood disorder that shortens lifespan. Ironically, the same gene that causes sickle cell anima also confers resistance to malaria; parents each with the recessive gene have a 25% chance of having offspring with sickle cell. This is an example of an evolutionary harm-vs.-benefit trait. Mr. Davis remained active on the music scene despite his deteriorating health up until his death in 1991, and today lifespan for those afflicted with sickle cell anemia can be managed and extended with treatment.


6. King Tutankhamen

Inbreeding led to many health issues for King Tut of ancient Egypt.

Image of King Tut (left, with his walking cane) found on a box in his tomb.

The legendary Egyptian king Tut is thought to have suffered from several genetic diseases as a result of inbreeding. Researchers examining the mummy have found evidence of curvature of the spine and foot malformation, causing the child king to walk with a cane. King Tut was also suffering from malaria, and died around 17 to 19 years of age.


5. King George III

King George III of England had a bizarre genetic condition that turned his urine blue.

King George III suffered from a genetic disorder that caused temporary insanity.

The British monarch during the American Revolutionary War, there’s ample evidence that King George III suffered from porphyria, which caused his urine to turn blue and led to temporary fits of insanity. This was depicted in the 1994 film The Madness of King George. This 1970 diagnosis was challenged in 2004 as researchers discovered traces of arsenic in the king’s hair.


4. Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and several other historical figures are suspected of having mild autism.

Thomas Edison, who is thought to have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, shows off his phonograph in 1876. Credit: Matthew Brady

Several geniuses such as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Thomas Edison have been thought to suffer from Asperger’s syndrome, or a high-functioning form of autism. Asperger’s wasn’t formally recognized as a disorder until the 1980s. Persons displaying Asperger’s may be highly intelligent, though lacking in social interactive skills. It should be noted that although a genetic component of autism is suspected, the exact cause is unknown. Claims of individuals such as Albert Einstein exhibiting Asperger’s are still hotly debated.


3. Niccolò Paganini

Nicollo Paganini had a rare genetic condition that enabled him to perform great pieces on the violin.

Niccolo Paganini on his deathbed.

An 18th century violin virtuoso, Paganini’s dexterity allowed him to hit notes no other player could. In fact, he also composed works that only he could play. Paganini was said to have been able to flex his fingers in seemingly impossible ways, but also possessed amazing strength in his hands. He also suffered from a mysterious and debilitating disease, and like seemingly everyone in those days, Paganini was treated for syphilis and tuberculosis using mercury, which probably added to his woes. Studies suggest Paganini may have suffered from Marfan or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a disease affecting the connective tissue of the bone. This same condition that won him notoriety eventually led to his death in 1840. Bizarrely, the church refused him interment, perhaps for fear of his rumored supernatural powers. Paganini was not formally buried until 1896. More than a century later, the famed musician’s legacy remains shrouded in mystery; a movie on his life, Paganini: The Devil’s Violinist, is scheduled for release in 2013.


2. John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy suffered from Addison's disease.

President John F. Kennedy kept his Addison’s disease a secret.

President John F. Kennedy had Addison’s disease, which was a closely guarded secret while he was running for president. Addison’s is an endocrine disorder that can have a genetic component or be the result of a tuberculosis infection. Kennedy managed his condition with daily steroid injections and drugs while on the campaign trail. Democratic insiders feared that voters might see a less than healthy candidate as unfit to be President. Similar autoimmune diseases have also turned up in other Kennedy family members as well.


1. Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is believed to have suffered from Marfan's syndrome.

President Abraham Lincoln is suspected to have had Marfan syndrome.

The 16th President of the United States has long been suspected to have had Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects connective tissue. It affects an estimated 1 in 5,000 people. Patients with Marfan typically exhibit a tall, gaunt appearance and spidery, double-jointed fingers. Had Lincoln not been assassinated, Marfan may have done him in; Marfan sufferers typically have heart defects and a high risk of aortic aneurisms. Interestingly, the case for Marfan in President Lincoln was made in 1951 when a patient with a shared lineage with Lincoln turned up with the disease.


One More: Charles Darwin

The author of On the Origin of Species and the father of modern evolutionary biology, Darwin was plagued with a mysterious illness which caused him distress for most of his adult life. Severe gastronomic pains and other miscellaneous symptoms caused him to seek out several bizarre treatments of the day such as water-wrapping therapy. Darwin’s condition may have been stress related, genetic (Crohn’s disease is a leading suspect), or he may have contracted Chagas’ disease while in South America; he was interred at Westminster Abbey and has never been properly examined in modern times.


Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.