11 Historical Geniuses and Their Possible Mental Disorders

Warren, Henry F., Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Warren, Henry F., Wikimedia Commons // 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.

1. ABRAHAM LINCOLN // DEPRESSION

The Great Emancipator managed to lead the country through one of its more trying times, despite suffering from severe depression most of his life. According to one Lincoln biographer, letters left by the president's friends referred to him as "the most depressed person they've ever seen." On at least one occasion, he was so overcome with "melancholy" that he collapsed. Both his mother and numerous members of his father's family exhibited similar symptoms of severe depression, indicating he was probably biologically susceptible to the illness. Lincoln is even assumed to be the author of a poem published in 1838, "The Suicide's Soliloquy," which contains the lines:

Hell! What is hell to one like me
Who pleasures never knew;
By friends consigned to misery,
By hope deserted too?

2. 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.

3. EDVARD MUNCH // PANIC ATTACKS

The world's most famous panic attack occurred in Olso during January 1892. Munch recorded the episode in his diary:

"One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature."

This experience affected the artist so deeply he returned to the moment again and again, eventually making two paintings, two pastels, and a lithograph based on his experience, as well as penning a poem derived from the diary entry. While it isn't known if Munch had any more panic attacks, mental illness did run in his family; at the time of his episode, his bipolar sister was in an asylum.

4. MICHELANGELO // AUTISM

You might have wondered in the past just how someone could paint something as huge as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. According to a paper published in the Journal of Medical Biography in 2004, Michelangelo's single-minded routine may have been due to the disorder. According to descriptions by his contemporaries, the painter was "preoccupied with his own reality." Most of the male members of his family are recorded to have exhibited similar symptoms. Michelangelo also seems to have had difficulty forming relationships with people; he had few friends and didn't even attend his brother's funeral. All of this, combined with his obvious genius in math and art, led the researchers to believe that today Michelangelo would be considered high functioning on the autism spectrum.

5. 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.

6. CHARLES DARWIN // AGORAPHOBIA

Scholars still debate just exactly what problems Darwin suffered from, but whatever they were, they were serious. Despite his famed five year voyage on the Beagle (and the publication it led to) making his career, Darwin was virtually incapacitated the entire time. While he concentrated on his physical symptoms as the cause of all his suffering, the constant trembling, nausea, hysterical crying, and visual hallucinations (among other things) seem to have been mostly caused by a severe case of agoraphobia that kept him virtually bedridden from the time he turned 30. Darwin's fear of people meant he would even avoid conversations with his own children, writing, "I am forced to live… very quietly and am able to see scarcely anybody and cannot even talk long with my nearest relations." In at least one letter he mentions feeling like committing suicide due to the publication of On the Origin of Species, the controversy over which caused him much distress. He may have also suffered from OCD and hypochondria, as he kept meticulous records of every new or recurring symptom.

7. WINSTON CHURCHILL // BIPOLAR DISORDER

Like Lincoln, Churchill was a great leader dealing not only with international strife but his own mental struggles at the same time. In his 30s, he complained to his friends that he was hounded by the "black dog of depression." He sat in the Houses of Parliament and contemplated suicide. Churchill told his doctor that he had to be careful where he stood in a train station:

"I don't like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through," he told his doctor. "I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don't like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second's action would end everything. A few drops of desperation."

The black dog would follow him the rest of his life. When in his mild manic phases he was personable, but his moods could change quickly. During periods of high mania he would stay up all night writing, eventually producing 43 books on top of attending to his political duties.

8. 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.

9. 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 stopped eating and starved to death.

10. LEO TOLSTOY // DEPRESSION

Tolstoy did not suffer from obvious signs of depression until middle age, but when it hit him, it hit hard. He went through serious personality changes, questioning virtually everything in his life. At times he debated giving away all of his possessions, becoming celibate, and the nature of his religious beliefs (or lack thereof). At one point he was determined to give up writing altogether, saying, "art is not only useless but even harmful." Tolstoy is a perfect example of someone who seemingly has everything brought low by this disease: despite coming from a wealthy family, being celebrated as an author, and being father to 13 children, eventually his demons drove him to seriously consider suicide. He wrote in one letter, "The possibility of killing himself has been given to man, and therefore he may kill himself." Eventually Tolstoy pulled himself out of this hole by becoming what we would now consider a born-again Christian.

11. ISSAC NEWTON // BIPOLAR, AUTISM, SCHIZOPHRENIA

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.

15 Uplifting Facts About the Wright Brothers

Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Before they built the world’s first powered, heavier-than-air, and controllable aircraft, Wilbur and Orville Wright were two ordinary brothers from the Midwest who possessed nothing more than natural talent, ambition, and imagination. In honor of National Aviation Day, here are 15 uplifting facts about the siblings who made human flight possible.

1. A TOY PIQUED THEIR PASSION.

From an early age, Wilbur and Orville Wright were fascinated by flight. They attribute their interest in aviation to a small helicopter toy their father brought back from his travels in France. Fashioned from a stick, two propellers, and rubber bands, the toy was crudely made. Nevertheless, it galvanized their quest to someday make their very own flying machine.

2. THEIR GENIUS WAS GENETIC.

While they were inspired by their father’s toy, the Wright brothers inherited their mechanical savvy from their mother, Susan Koerner Wright. She could reportedly make anything, be it a sled or another toy, by hand.

3. THEY WERE PROUD MIDWESTERNERS.

The Wright brothers spent their formative years in Dayton, Ohio. Later in life, Wilbur said his advice for those seeking success would be to “pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”

4. THEY NEVER GRADUATED HIGH SCHOOL.

While the Wright brothers were undoubtedly bright, neither of them ever earned his high school diploma. Wilbur became reclusive after suffering a bad hockey injury, and Orville dropped out of school.

5. THEY ONCE PUBLISHED A NEWSPAPER.

Before they were inventors, the Wright brothers were newspaper publishers. When he was 15 years old, Orville launched his own print shop from behind his house and he and Wilber began publishing The West Side News, a small-town neighborhood paper. It eventually became profitable, and Orville moved the fledgling publication to a rented space downtown. In due time, Orville and Wilbur ceased producing The West Side News—which they’d renamed The Evening Item—to focus on other projects.

6. THEY MADE A FORAY INTO THE BICYCLE BUSINESS.

One of these projects was a bike store called the Wright Cycle Company, where Wilbur and Orville fixed clients’ bicycles and sold their own designs. The fledgling business grew into a profitable enterprise, which eventually helped the Wright brothers fund their flight designs.

7. THEY WERE AUTODIDACTS.

The Wright brothers’ lifelong interest in flight peaked after they witnessed a successive series of aeronautical milestones: the gliding flights of German aviator Otto Lilienthal, the flying of an unmanned steam-powered fixed-wing model aircraft by Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley, and the glider test flights of Chicago engineer Octave Chanute. By 1899, Wilbur sat down and wrote to the Smithsonian, asking them to send him literature on aeronatics. He was convinced, he wrote, “that human flight is possible and practical.” Once he received the books, he and Orville began studying the science of flight.

8. THEY CHOSE TO FLY IN KITTY HAWK BECAUSE IT PROVIDED WIND, SOFT SAND, AND PRIVACY.

The Wright brothers began building prototypes and eventually traveled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1902 to test a full-size, two-winged glider with a moveable rudder. They chose this location thanks in part to their correspondence with Octave Chanute, who advised them in a letter to select a windy place with soft grounds. It was also private, which allowed them to launch their aircrafts with little public interference.

9. THEY ACHIEVED FOUR SUCCESSFUL FLIGHTS WITH THEIR FIRST AIRPLANE DESIGN.

The Wright brothers started testing various wing designs and spent the next few years perfecting their evolving vision for a heavier-than-air flying machine. In the winter of 1903, they returned to Kitty Hawk with their final model, the 1903 Wright Flyer. On December 17, they finally achieved a milestone: four brief flights, one of which lasted for 59 seconds and reached 852 feet.

10. THE 1903 WRIGHT FLYER NEVER TOOK TO THE SKIES AGAIN…

Before the brothers could embark on their final flight, a heavy wind caused the plane to flip several times. Because of the resulting damage, it never flew again. It eventually found a permanent home in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum—even though Orville originally refused to donate it to the institution because it claimed that Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley’s own aircraft experiment was the first machine capable of sustained free flight.

11. …BUT A PIECE OF IT DID GO TO THE MOON.

An astronaut paid homage to the Wright brothers by carrying both a swatch of fabric from the 1903 Flyer’s left wing and a piece of its wooden propeller inside his spacesuit.

12. THE PRESS INITIALLY IGNORED THE KITTY HAWK FLIGHTS.

Despite their monumental achievement, the Dayton Journal didn’t think the Wright brothers’ short flights were important enough to cover. The Virginia Pilot ended up catching wind of the story, however, and they printed an error-ridden account that was picked up by several other papers. Eventually, the Dayton Journal wrote up an official—and accurate—story.

13. THE BROTHERS SHARED A CLOSE BOND...

Although the Wright brothers weren’t twins, they certainly lived like they were. They worked side by side six days a week, and shared the same residence, meals, and bank account. They also enjoyed mutual interests, like music and cooking. Neither brother ever married, either. Orville said it was Wilbur’s job, as the older sibling, to get hitched first. Meanwhile, Wilbur said he “had no time for a wife.” In any case, the two became successful businessmen, scoring aviation contracts both domestically and abroad.

14. …BUT WERE OPPOSITES IN MANY WAYS.

Although they were much alike, each Wright brother was his own person. As the older brother, Wilbur was more serious and taciturn. He possessed a phenomenal memory, and was generally consumed by his thoughts. Meanwhile, Orville was positive, upbeat, and talkative, although very bashful in public. While Wilbur spearheaded the brothers’ business endeavors, they wouldn’t have been possible without Orville’s mechanical—and entrepreneurial—savvy.

15. OHIO AND NORTH CAROLINA FIGHT OVER THEIR LEGACY.

Since the Wright brothers split their experiments between Ohio and North Carolina, both states claim their accomplishments as their own. Ohio calls itself the "Birthplace of Aviation,” although the nickname also stems from the fact that two famed astronauts hail from there as well. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s license plates are emblazoned with the words “First In Flight.”

This article originally ran in 2015.

12 Facts About Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Veeder, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication
Veeder, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was never able to cast a vote legally, though she helped secure that right for women across America. As the philosopher of the women’s rights movement in 19th-century America, she expressed what she felt regardless of what others might think. Read on for more facts about one of the most important women in history.

1. HER FATHER WISHED SHE HAD BEEN A BOY.

Cady Stanton’s father, Daniel Cady, served in Congress and the New York State Assembly, and was a New York Supreme Court judge. He and his wife Margaret had 11 children; five daughters, including Elizabeth, and one son would survive to adulthood. When her brother Eleazar died at age 20, Elizabeth’s father allegedly said to her, “Oh my daughter, I wish you were a boy!”

That may have been her father’s way of lamenting the hardships she would suffer as a woman, but Elizabeth responded by throwing herself into studying Greek, chess, and horse riding, vowing “to make her father happy by being all a son could have been,” Lori D. Ginzberg writes in Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life. Daniel Cady did encourage his bright and self-confident daughter when she was upset that laws could not help one of his female clients: “When you are grown up, and able to prepare a speech, you must go down to Albany and talk to the legislators,” he told her. “If you can persuade them to pass new laws, the old ones will be a dead letter.”

2. A PREACHER ACTUALLY SCARED THE BEJESUS OUT OF HER.

Even as a young person, Elizabeth bristled against her family’s Presbyterian beliefs. In 1831, as a required part of her lessons at the Troy Female Seminary, she attended a revival at which noted evangelist Charles Grandison Finney spoke. She found his ideas about sin so alarming that she had to take time off from school to recover. Ultimately, she rejected organized Christianity’s dependence on fear, and later came to view religion as at odds with her work in the feminist movement.

3. SHE SPENT HER HONEYMOON AT AN ANTI-SLAVERY CONVENTION.

In 1840, Elizabeth married Henry Stanton, a prominent abolitionist who was active in the New York Anti-Slavery Society. After the wedding, the new couple headed to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where Henry was a delegate and Elizabeth was forced with other female attendees into the back of the lecture hall [PDF]. There she met feminist Lucretia Mott, who shared her support for women’s and African Americans' rights.

4. CADY STANTON ATTENDED AN EPIC TEA PARTY …

When you think of an important tea party, the Boston event probably springs to mind—but there was at least one other tea-related confab that was just as historic.

On July 9, 1848, Cady Stanton and three other women—Lucretia Mott, her sister Martha Wright, and Mary Ann McClintock—were invited to the Waterloo, New York home of Jane Hunt, a wealthy Quaker dedicated to social reform. During the gathering, they discussed how women weren’t allowed to vote or own property and why the Quaker religion avoided getting involved with women’s rights and the anti-slavery movement. The decision to create an organized meeting to advocate women’s equality was decided right then and there, though who came up with the idea is not known.

5. ... WHICH LED TO THE FIRST WOMEN’S RIGHTS CONVENTION IN AMERICA.

Cady Stanton, Mott, and their colleagues announced “a Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” Ten days after the tea party, more than 300 people attended the event (also known as the Seneca Falls convention). The first day, July 19, was planned as an all-women discussion, and July 20 was open to the public.

Stanton wrote and read a “Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances” for the occasion, a discourse based on the Declaration of Independence describing the oppression of women and the rights to which they were entitled. It began with these famous lines: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (The Declaration of Independence had almost identical wording except for the “and women” part.) Sixty-eight women and 32 men signed the declaration. Seneca Falls launched annual conventions to advocate women’s rights, and was the start of the long battle that eventually earned women the right to vote.

6. CADY STANTON AND SUSAN B. ANTHONY WERE BFFS.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Cady Stanton met Susan B. Anthony in 1851 and they quickly became an unstoppable pair. In their shared goal of achieving women’s equality, Anthony handled the campaigning and speeches, while Cady Stanton did the lion’s share of the writing from her home in Seneca Falls. While Anthony objected to Cady Stanton allowing her role as a mother to interfere with her reform work, she also helped her take care of the seven Stanton children. Cady Stanton said of Anthony:

“In the division of labor we exactly complemented each other. In writing we did better work than either could alone. While she is slow and analytical in composition, I am rapid and synthetic. I am the better writer, she the better critic. She supplies the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric, and, together, we have made arguments that have stood unshaken through the storms of long years—arguments that no one has answered. Our speeches may be considered the united product of our two brains."

Together, they formed the anti-slavery Women’s Loyal National League and published the first three of six volumes of History of Woman Suffrage.

7. SHE OPPOSED THE 15th AMENDMENT.

Cady Stanton and Anthony also founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869 in response to the proposed 15th Amendment. According to Ginzberg, feminists faced a choice after the Civil War, when Congress debated suffrage for emancipated slaves. “There was a battle among abolitionists—of which Stanton counted herself—between having a 15th Amendment that gave black men the vote or holding out for a suffrage amendment that granted the vote to all adult Americans,” Ginzberg told NPR. “Stanton and her friend Susan B. Anthony stood on what they claimed was the highest moral ground by demanding universal human rights for all and—historians have argued about this ever since—not being willing to sacrifice women's rights for the politically expedient challenge of gaining rights for black men.” The 15th Amendment, giving men the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” was ratified in 1870. Women did not end up achieving the franchise until 1920.

8. SHE RAN FOR CONGRESS.

Women could run for public office even though they couldn’t vote, a situation that Cady Stanton sought to challenge. She ran for the U.S. House of Representatives—the first woman to do so—as an independent representing New York in 1866. She knew that she was treading new ground when she announced she was running. “I have no political antecedents to recommend me to your support, but my creed is free speech, free press, free men, and free trade—the cardinal points of democracy,” she explained in a letter. She received only 24 votes of the 12,000 cast, perhaps a reflection of the fact that no women could vote—but her audacious campaign likely inspired others. Six years later Victoria Woodhull became the first female candidate for president. It wasn’t until 1916 that a woman, Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana, was elected to Congress.

9. SHE WROTE A BESTSELLING CRITIQUE OF CHRISTIANITY.

Her 1895 book The Woman’s Bible, which criticized the ways religion portrayed women as less than men, drove a wedge between Stanton and the women’s movement. Cady Stanton argued that the Bible taught “the subjection and degradation of woman” and that equality demanded a revision of its lessons. Anthony felt it was more important to welcome people of all religious beliefs into the fight for suffrage. Thanks to the controversy, the book became a bestseller.

10. SHE BELIEVED BIKES WOULD LIBERATE WOMEN.

As the 1970s feminist slogan goes, “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” In Cady Stanton’s day, a bike made it so that a woman wouldn’t need a man, at least when it came to transportation. Biking had become popular by the 1890s, and was strongly associated with the modern woman of the latter part of the 19th century, liberated from stuffy social and marital expectations. At 80, Stanton told The American Wheelman magazine that “the bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect [and] self-reliance,” eventually leading to women’s suffrage. Both she and Susan B. Anthony have been credited with saying “woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle.” They could see beyond the convenience of getting from point A to point B: Bikes symbolized a new freedom for women.

11. SHE TRIED TO DONATE HER BRAIN TO SCIENCE.

Cady Stanton died in 1902, just before turning 87. Susan B. Anthony was heartsick. “I am too crushed to speak,” she told The New York Times’s obituary writer.

But Cady Stanton had tried to ensure that she would still help women’s causes after her own death. Her friend Helen Gardener, a fellow suffragist, had convinced her to donate her brain to Cornell University so scientists would have an eminent female brain to compare with those of eminent men. Stanton had told her family of her plan, and Gardener announced her wishes publicly. Gardener said Cady Stanton “felt that a brain like hers would be useful for all time in the record it would give the world, for the first time—the scientific record of a thinker among women,” Kimberly A. Hamlin writes in From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America. Cady Stanton’s family, however, refused to believe she had agreed to the plan, and the brain was buried with the rest of her in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

12. SHE WILL APPEAR ON THE $10 BILL IN 2020.

The 19th Amendment, which finally gave women the right to vote, celebrates its centennial in 2020. To commemorate the anniversary, a new $10 bill will be issued with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul on the back—the first time in more than 100 years that a female portrait has been featured on paper money. (Alexander Hamilton will remain on the front.) You can also expect to see Cady Stanton and Anthony memorialized in a bronze statue in New York City’s Central Park that will be known as the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Woman Suffrage Movement Monument. Amazingly, the suffrage pioneers are the first two women to be honored with statues in Central Park, and only the fourth and fifth American women represented by public statues in any NYC park.

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