Epilepsy Talk

Epilepsy Hall of Fame | September 13, 2009

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.





  1. Great article! My favorite Dostoevsky novel, The Idiot, features the beautiful and innocent Prince Myshkin — an epileptic like Dostoevsky himself.


    Comment by Arthur P. Johnson — September 13, 2009 @ 7:19 PM

  2. I know the family is small at WebMD rite now, but, how about joining us??? Your comments, advise, support are needed there, too. 🙂 Another ‘role model’. 🙂 I like your style & your positive attitude. BTW: Your article was GREAT as is. Even though I know the list of ‘fame’ is much longer. 🙂
    It’s ‘old news’ to me. But, I have been researching for over 15 yrs. 🙂 Newbies are the one’s who will TRULY appreciate your efforts. Not that I don’t! 🙂

    Love Candi AKA Dancer86442


    Comment by Candi — September 14, 2009 @ 4:26 PM

  3. Having researched a lot, on famous people with epilepsy for a book I am writing on the condition, I was aware of most of these mentioned here, but again, having faced the most abhorrent prejudice and ignorance over the years against my epilepsy, I would plead with people worldwide to stop referring to “people with epilepsy” as the dreaded EPILEPTIC. God, it is truly a horrific word/label,one never used here in the UK by Epilepsy Action or anyone aware of stigma and ignorance, it conjures up disgusting imagery of the typical Grand Mal, a person on the floor, convulsing, peeing, spitting, making choking noises, supposedly in the grasp of demons and evil spirits, a poor victim of what was once known as “The Falling Syckness” we will only raise awareness of the complexity of this condition, by forgetting this image the public have of epilepsy, when there are over thirty types of epileptic seizure, and it is nothing to be ashamed of!! I will continue to explode this myth that we are mad!!!

    Elaine Howell, Northants.UK


    Comment by Elaine Howell — September 15, 2009 @ 12:45 PM

    • BIG thanks to you Elaine. How far along are you with your epilepsy book?


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — September 15, 2009 @ 1:53 PM

      • Hi Phylis

        Sorry for the delay in replying, me and computers!!! Arrrggghhh!!! I’ve more or less completed my book, having my second lot of surgery, I just have a few bits to add to it, and then I would so love to get it published. It really is a tongue in cheek look at epilepsy, and all the jobs I’ve lost over the years, and the public speaking I’ve been lucky enough to do, radio and tv and generally wave the flag for more awareness.
        I would love to get it out there before this time next year, it’s just that I am no good at sitting still for too long, so being at a computer is pretty tedious! I will complete it though, and would love to call it “Fit For Life” I’ll keep you posted.

        Very Best Regards


        Comment by Elaine Howell — October 3, 2009 @ 5:28 PM

  4. Thank you for your listing of some of my favorite people. Dostoyevsky is my favorite on the list, with Lewis Carroll’s falling through a hole in his consciousness next. Anyone with TLE knows exactly what the shrinking and growing experience feels like. I tell people that a full-blown TLE seizure feels as if I’m staring at the world through the wrong end of a telescope at the same time that everything around me (especially noises) is magnified a thousand times. Keep writing, my friend, and so will I (alternately between TLE and Bipolar disorder—what a fascinating life I have!).


    Comment by Harold Knight — September 22, 2009 @ 9:00 PM

    • Hi Harold

      I was interested in your comments on Bi-polar and TLE, I’ve had TLE since 1986, but am a generally happy go lucky person, depression has always fascinated me though, and I have known several folk with it over the years. I have to say, my epilepsy is hardly any trouble to me at all when the sun is shining, and having been to Egypt four times, I have had one simple partial seizure in all that time!! I love the sun, and it makes me feel like a different person, how strange are Laine’s brains?!

      Best Wishes



      Comment by Elaine Howell — October 3, 2009 @ 5:31 PM

  5. Good for you Elaine! You go girl! Keep waving that flag!!!

    With respect and admiration,


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — October 3, 2009 @ 6:33 PM

  6. […] For those out there thinking they are the only one, here’s a list of celebrities with simular traits. Courtesy from Phylis Feiner Johnson at Epilepsy Talk https://epilepsytalk.com/2009/09/13/epilepsy-hall-of-fame/ […]


    Pingback by Epilepsy Hall of Fame | — October 31, 2010 @ 7:36 PM

  7. Hi, Phyllis, I didn’t know where to put this, but it seemed the most logical place.
    Did you ever read the book, “The Egyptian” by Finnish author, Mika Waltari? It is about a physician in ancient Egypt, and especially about the Pharaoh, Akhnaten (also known as Amenhotep IV). He was the father of Tutankhamun. He was one of the first known people in history to be a monotheist, and he changed Egypt (for awhile) to believe in only one god, Aten.
    The Pharaoh very likely had epilepsy, and Waltari describes him having a seizure in some detail early in the book. Waltari did a lot of research in Egyptian history, and he may be right about this. He must also have had some experience with epilepsy.
    As you probably know, epileptic seizures often include religious visions. (Dr. Orrin Devinsky has written several papers on that subject.) The Pharaoh could feel the seizure coming, which he interpreted as the “god” coming to him.
    The physician, Sinuhe, witnesses a seizure, and recognizes immediately what it is. Although Sinuhe is himself not religious, he recognizes that the condition the Pharaoh has is called the “holy illness.”
    There was a movie made from the book too. You can see it on YouTube.


    Comment by Martha — November 3, 2014 @ 9:17 PM

  8. Wow Martha, you’re always teaching me something new!

    Thanks for “The Physician” intro. It seems that all the attention goes to Tutankhamun.

    As for Orrin Devinsky, he is most definitely my idol. I even got to meet him at a conference in NYC!


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — November 4, 2014 @ 7:03 PM

  9. Phyllis, I just saw this, and thought it might be a conversation-starter:



    Comment by Martha — April 15, 2015 @ 8:29 PM

  10. And here I was, thinking I was such a genius.

    But perhaps mini strokes would be a good article in itself?


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 16, 2015 @ 9:27 AM

  11. Two more are the singers Elton John and Prince.


    Comment by Chris Arceneaux — February 11, 2016 @ 9:16 AM

  12. Chris, you might find this article interesting:



    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — February 11, 2016 @ 9:38 AM

  13. Has anyone tried CBD Oil yet, the drops?
    I got some for my 30 year old son that his lamictal had quit working about 3 1/2 years ago. He has tried combo of other med’s with his lamictal but best he is doing is one to 2 seizures a week. Lamictal worked for 12 years with no seizures till he had to come off because insurance would not cover cost anymore, started using generic and his seizures came back and now nothing works anymore.

    Read this oil helps especially with patients that nothing else works.


    Comment by Buddy Dowlen — December 25, 2016 @ 5:23 PM

  14. Dear Buddy, I don’t know much about CBD oil, but you can get assistance coupons for Lamictal through the Glaxo Smith Kline Patience Assistance Program


    Prescription Hope says it covers some prescription drugs.


    And here are some other links, which will be trial and error for name brand meds.

    Epilepsy — Top Financial and Medical Assistance Programs


    (Look also at the links at the bottom of the article.)

    I agree, it takes a lot of homework, but hopefully, it will be worth it in the end.

    P.S Also, look at this link: https://www.drugs.com/price-guide/lamotrigine and you’ll see how widely Lamictal prices can vary (depending upon dosage and amount of pills.)

    It could be your best bet. I’m not sure. I’m on the generic with a hefty prescription plan.


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — December 26, 2016 @ 10:20 AM

    • Thank you, sorry I forgot to mention we got Keith on program at Bridges to Access and he gets his Lamictal free. This has been a great help financially. And we just found out last month after 3 1/2 years he was awarded SSI and Medicare benefits. Not of these will help until we find something that will work so he can go back to work.
      Thanks for responding back. Back several months ago you wrote a column about how Epilipsy get no respect. Long column but I passed it on to several local newspapers, magazines, and TV stations hoping someone would take a notice and do any kind of article to raise awareness. But alas no interest, not important enough.
      Not giving up and will continue to fight the fight. Thanks for your column!


      Comment by Buddy Dowlen — December 26, 2016 @ 9:30 PM

  15. Buddy, Thank you, thank you, thank you. I hope everyone reads this. It’s a tremendous help and great advice.

    Now to find something that really works in terms of AEDs for Keith…

    I also submitted an article about the epilepsy stigma during epilepsy awareness month, but couldn’t get any traction with the newspaper editor. 😦

    But thanks for trying. And thanks for the complement. I’m glad you like the column!


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — December 27, 2016 @ 9:40 AM

  16. Where are the women? I know of one incredibly spiritual, gifted,creative,warm
    woman for whom I have the utmost respect and love unconditionally.
    She happens to have epilepsy.


    Comment by Nyugen Elizabeth Moore — January 3, 2018 @ 3:00 PM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    About the author

    Phylis Feiner Johnson

    Phylis Feiner Johnson

    I've been a professional copywriter for over 35 years. I also had epilepsy for decades. My mission is advocacy; to increase education, awareness and funding for epilepsy research. Together, we can make a huge difference. If not changing the world, at least helping each other, with wisdom, compassion and sharing.

    View Full Profile →

    Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive free notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 2,858 other followers

    Follow Epilepsy Talk on WordPress.com
%d bloggers like this: