Since the dawn of time, epilepsy has affected millions of people — from beggars to kings. It’s one of the oldest conditions and also one of the most misunderstood, although legions of accomplished people have shared the stigma.
Ancient people thought epileptic seizures were caused by evil spirits or demons that had invaded a person’s body. Luckily for them, the “cure” was prayers and magic. Unfortunately for Victorian epileptics, the “treatment” was often castration and bleeding by leeches.
On the other hand, epileptic seizures were considered to have a power and symbolism which suggested creativity or unusual leadership abilities. Scholars still are fascinated by how prominent prophets and other holy men, political leaders, philosophers, and many who achieved greatness in the arts and sciences, suffered from epilepsy.
Here are just a few of the many. Perhaps you recognize them…
Alexander the Great (356 BC – 323 BC), also known as Alexander III, was the ancient Greek king of Macedon (336 – 323 BC). During his time, epilepsy was known as “the sacred disease” because of the belief that those who had seizures were possessed by evil spirits or touched by the gods and should be treated by invoking mystical powers. Which might explain his success in twelve years of military campaigning.
Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) Aristotle was one of the first to point out that epilepsy and genius were often closely connected. He found that seizure disorders may have the ability to increase brain activity in specific places and maybe also enhance a persons natural abilities to a certain extent.
Alfred the Great (849 – 899) The King of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex didn’t let his epilepsy keep him from doing good works for his kingdom and making one of the best books of laws of his time. He was very Catholic and by the time of his death he had helped increase the quality and amount of churches and schools from all over his lands.
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 — 1519) The man responsible for some of the greatest religious paintings in history Leonardo Da Vinci excelled not only in painting but in numerous other disciplines as well. He was a Tuscan polymath: architect, botanist, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, painter, sculptor, and writer. His most famous work is definetely the paintings of both Mona Lisa and the Last Supper of Jesus Christ which have both been the most reproduced religious paintings of all times.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 –1892) In Tennyson’s time, epilepsy was the ultimate stigma because it was believed that masturbation was the culprit! As a result, up until the 19th century, one approach to epilepsy was castration. Tennyson’s was also dragged off to European spas where treatment consisted of drinking large amounts of water, walking long distances in bad weather, and being submersed, wrapped in sheets, into cold baths. It’s a wonder that, despite these odds, he became Poet Laureate in 1850.
Vincent van Gogh (1853 — 1890) Vincent van Gogh is probably the most widely known artist with epilepsy. “The storm within” was how he described it and a hospital worker witnessed Vincent having a seizure once while painting outside. He was prescribed potassium bromide as an anticonvulsant and ordered to spend countless hours bathing in tubs at the asylum in Saint-Remy. His most troubling seizures peaked with his greatest art in the south of France, where he painted A Starry Night, the extraordinary Self-Portrait, and the famous Crows in the Wheatfields.
Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) The famous Victorian author of such classic books as A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twisthad epilepsy, as did several of the characters in his books. The medical accuracy of Dickens’s descriptions of epilepsy has amazed doctors who read him today. Through some characters in his novels, Charles Dickens recorded observations on the nature of epileptic seizures, their causes and provocation, and their consequences. Three of his main characters, Monks, Guster, and Bradley Headstone, had seizures which Dickens realistically described.
Alfred Nobel (1833 – 1896) Nobel had epileptic seizures since childhood which later made him write of convulsions and agony in a poem. Yet he went on to become a chemist, engineer, innovator, armaments manufacturer and inventor of dynamite. He held more than 350 patents and controlled factories and laboratories in 20 countries by the time of his death. And in 1895, Nobel left much of his wealth to establish the Nobel Prize — honoring men and women for outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and for work in peace.
Edgar Allen Poe (1809 – 1849) Poe is best known for his macabre mysteries and he is the one who invented the Detective-Fiction genre. For many years, people attributed his mental problems to alcohol and drug abuse but, today many believe that he was not properly diagnosed. Most authorities now believe he was epileptic, which would sometimes explain his frequent confusion.
Gustave Flaubert (1821 — 1880) Wrote such masterpieces as Madame Bovary and A Sentimental Education, and was also diagnosed with epilepsy. His father, a doctor, ordered him to take regular bleedings with leeches. Flaubert abandoned these useless treatments and resigned himself to living with his epilepsy. Flaubert gave features of these seizures (none described as epilepsy) to various characters, including the heroine of Madame Bovary, who falls into a stupor while crossing a field, and the title character in his book The Temptation of St. Anthony.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881) Author of such classics as The Idiot, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky is considered by many to have brought the Western novel to the peak of its possibilities. It was reported that he had his first seizure at age nine which could explain why he made epilepsy a central source of themes, personalities, and events in his books; in fact, he gave epilepsy to about 30 of his characters.
Lewis Carroll (1832 – 1898) In his famous stories Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Carroll may have been writing about his own temporal lobe seizures. The very inspiration for Alice’ adventures — that of falling down a hole — is familiar to many people with seizures. Alice often feels that her own body (or the objects around her) is shrinking or growing before her eyes, another seizure symptom.
Peter Tchaikovsky (1840 — 1893) Russian composer of the Romantic era. Tchaikovsky, is believed to have had epilepsy. Peter began piano lessons at age five with a local woman, Mariya Palchikova within three years he read music as well as his teacher. Tchaikovsky died on November 6, 1893, nine days after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathetique. His death has traditionally been attributed to cholera, most probably contracted through drinking contaminated water several days earlier.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919) A soldier, historian, explorer, naturalist, author, and Governor of New York, he went on to become the President of the United States at the age of 42. And although he was subject to epileptic seizures, bad eyesight and also suffered from asthma, he was still a man of courage and strength appreciated by many.
Bud Abbott (1895 – 1974) The American comedian and actor, tried all his life to hide the fact that he was suffering from epilepsy. Many times he tried to control it with alcohol. His alcoholism worsened and by the time he lost his longtime partner Lou Costello, Abbott’s career was effectively over.
Richard Burton (1925 – 1984) Being at one time the highest paid Hollywood actor, Burton was well known for his distinctive voice. But he was crippled all his life by epilepsy and went extremely deep into alcoholism to try and prevent the seizures. Eventually this led him to manic depression. But he would never go to a doctor because he was more afraid of being diagnosed as crazy than of having epilepsy!
Chandra Gunn (1980 — Present) An American ice hockey player who won a bronze medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics. As a female athlete with temporal lobe epilepsy, Chanda Gunn faces each day with a zest for life and the determination to live each day to its fullest. Gunn has received numerous awards, she is the first player ever to be named a finalist for both the Patty Kazmaier Award for the nation’s best women’s college hockey player and the Humanitarian Award for college hockey’s finest citizen.
This is just a sampling of the many famous people whose epilepsy has been recorded by historians. But what about our contemporaries, the gifted celebrities of today who have epilepsy?
Hugo Weaving who played the leader of the Elves in Lord of the Rings, and the nearly invincible virtual villain in The Matrix, indicates that he has been treated for epilepsy since age 13.
Neil Young not only has epilepsy, but he has given countless performances to raise money for the cause.
Danny Glover has stood up and proudly said: “I want people with epilepsy to know that there are ways in which they can play a role in their own recovery. It’s all in how they approach what is happening and how they can use that as a catalyst for their own growth. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned, it’s that people are willing to embrace you if you share your story.”
But for the most part, even today in a modern era when epileptic seizures are known to be common neurological events and not supernatural ones, the misconceptions and stigma attached to epilepsy remains.
Today, many celebrities with epilepsy still remain “in the closet,” concerned that going public with their epilepsy will result in negative treatment and harm their job opportunities. Which is a shame, because people living with epilepsy — people who are neither genius nor celebrities— deserve to have role models to inspire them, and leaders to raise public awareness and understanding of this disorder.