The Mental Illnesses Of Historical Geniuses

Ludwig von Beethoven

Photo: Public domain

Studies have shown that there are much higher instances of mental disorder in political leaders and creative geniuses than in the general population.And while it’s impossible to be completely sure of a correct diagnosis of a historical figure, that hasn’t stopped researchers from making educated guesses.

Here’s a speculative look at the mental health of 11 of history’s big thinkers.

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Abraham Lincoln – Depression?

Ludwig von Beethoven – Bipolar Disorder?

When the composer died of liver failure in 1827, he had been self-medicating his many health problems with alcohol for decades. Sadly, much of what he may have suffered from probably could have been managed with today's medications, including a serious case of bipolar disorder.

Beethoven's fits of mania were well known in his circle of friends, and when he was on a high he could compose numerous works at once. It was during his down periods that many of his most celebrated works were written. Sadly, that was also when he contemplated suicide, as he told his brothers in letters throughout his life.

During the early part of 1813 he went through such a depressive period that he stopped caring about his appearance, and would fly into rages during dinner parties. He also stopped composing almost completely during that time.

Edvard Munch – Panic Attacks?

Michelangelo – Autism?

Charles Dickens – Depression?

By his early 30s, Dickens was the most famous author in the world. He was wealthy and seemed to have it all. But after an unbelievably difficult childhood, which saw the author working in a boot factory and living on his own when his father was thrown in prison, Dickens would start falling into depressions with the start of each new novel.

The first one to cause him problems was one of his lesser-known works, The Chimes, in 1844. After that, Dickens' friends wrote that he became down every time he set to work on a new project, but that his mood would gradually lift until he was in a kind of mania by the time he finished.

His depression worsened with age, and he eventually separated from his wife -- the mother of his 10 children -- to live with an 18-year-old actress. After he was involved in a train crash four years before his death, in which he was uninjured but was forced to assist dying passengers before help came, his depression seems to have finally staunched his creativity, and his previously prolific output virtually ceased.

Charles Darwin – Agoraphobia?

Winston Churchill – Bipolar Disorder?

Vaslav Nijinsky – Schizophrenia?

While not well-known today, in the early 1900s, Nijinsky was a household name. Considered the greatest male dancer of his era, he was famous for his intense performances, gigantic leaps, and ability to dance on his toes (en pointe), something uncommon among male dancers at the time.

When he took to choreographing ballets, his modern take on the dance led to a riot. By the time Nijinsky was 26, the symptoms of his disease were affecting his work. He spent the rest of his life in and out of mental hospitals, often going weeks at a time without saying a word.

Kurt Gödel – Persecutory Delusions?

Gödel was a brilliant logician and mathematician, as well as a contemporary and great friend of Albert Einstein.

Einstein's super-intelligence might have made him seem a little odd to the average person, but he doesn't seem to have suffered from any actual mental illnesses. Gödel, on the other hand, thought that someone was out to poison him.

He was so sure of this delusion, especially later in life, that he would only eat food that his wife had cooked, and usually made her taste it first, just to be sure. When his wife was hospitalized for six months, Gödel simply stopped eating and starved to death.

Leo Tolstoy – Depression?

Isaac Newton – Everything?

One of the greatest scientists of all time is also the hardest genius to diagnose, but historians agree he had a lot going on. Newton suffered from huge ups and downs in his moods, indicating bipolar disorder, combined with psychotic tendencies.

His inability to connect with people could place him on the autism spectrum. He also had a tendency to write letters filled with mad delusions, which some medical historians feel strongly indicates schizophrenia.

Whether he suffered from one or a combination of these serious illnesses, they did not stop him from inventing calculus, explaining gravity, and building telescopes, among his other great scientific achievements.

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