Epilepsy Talk

Epilepsy Hall of Fame | April 7, 2020

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 holy men, political leaders, philosophers, writers, entertainers, and many others 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 works are definitely the paintings of both Mona Lisa and the Last Supper of Jesus Christ which have been the most reproduced religious paintings of all times.

Lord Alfred 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 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 Twist had 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, their 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 portrayed epilepsy in 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’s 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) are 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.

Truman Capote (1924 — 1984) The writer of the famous Breakfast at Tiffany’s had epilepsy thought to be induced by drug and alcohol use.

Richard Burton (1925 – 1984) 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!

Tony Coelho (1942 — Present) Authored the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) during his time in the House of Representatives. This legislation provides people with disabilities equal access to employment, public facilities, and transportation and makes it possible for them to become a full participating member of society.

Sir Elton John (1947 — Present) The legendary singer suffered a drug overdose In 1975 and began having seizures as a result. In his own battle of will, Elton John explained to doctors that he needed the cocaine to forget about the seizures he was struggling with.

Prince (1958 — 2016) His experiences with epilepsy shaped his career and his success. Prince explained that the teasing from his classmates forced him to be confident and to develop a unique style and persona that helped make him famous: “Early in my career I tried to compensate by being as flashy as I could and as noisy as I could.” The way the late singer opened up about his epilepsy garnered further inspiration from his fans.

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 to the 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.

Hugo Weaving (April, 1960 — Present) 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.

Susan Boyle  (1961 — Present) The famous singer has talked openly about her disability and how it held her back. Adults in her life told her that her seizures were due to a mental defect, and for years she believed them. By talking about her struggles, Boyle helps to shine a light on children who may experience complex emotions because of epilepsy.

Cameron Boyce (1999 — 2019) most recognized for his roles on Disney Channel’s “The Descendants” and “Jessie,” he also starred in the movies “Grown Ups” and Grown Ups 2.” Boyce died tragically at the ago of just 20, from SUDEP.

Neil Young (1945 — Present) Legendary singer and songwriter Young, not only has epilepsy, but he has given countless performances to raise money for the cause.

Danny Glover (1946 — Present) 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.

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16 Comments »

  1. Best list of its kind that I’ve seen. It’s interesting that it doesn’t include Caesar. Perhaps he’s been proven not to have had epilepsy?

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Alison Zetterquist — April 7, 2020 @ 4:15 PM

  2. The jury is out on that one.

    I originally had him on the list, but it is believed his seizures were caused by brain damage, sustained during battle.

    Like

    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 7, 2020 @ 4:41 PM

  3. A lot, but not all, of the people on that list, seemed to have lived troubled lives. Perhaps this shows the link between Epilepsy and Depression and Anxiety.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by Donna Jones — April 7, 2020 @ 5:27 PM

  4. Good point!

    Epilepsy, Anxiety and Depression

    https://epilepsytalk.com/2019/08/03/epilepsy-anxiety-and-depression/

    Like

    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 7, 2020 @ 5:30 PM

    • Thanks, Phylis, the information on Anxiety and Depression are helpful. I have been having anger issues lately… I have switched from Keppra to Brivicat six months ago and for a while, things seemed to be going well, but lately, I have been having fits of blind rage at the slightest provocation, I think I may have broken my hand on my cupboard because it wouldn’t cooperate and I lost it and punched it. I was going to wait until this Covid-19 situation got better, but I need to, first of all, attend to my hand and get in touch with my Epileptologist about the possibility of my rage as a result of side-effects from Brivicat.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Donna Jones — April 8, 2020 @ 1:34 AM

      • Oh Donna, what a difficult road you’re leading.

        Do you think a change of meds would help?

        Can you talk to your doctor about your reactions?

        Perhaps keeping a seizure diary would help — noting your behavior, occurrence of seizures, and the aftermath.

        That might help your doc understand what you’re going through and state a strong case for a change of meds.

        Like

        Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 8, 2020 @ 10:11 AM

      • I spoke with my Epilepsy nurse, and she wants me to keep a diary too. I tried before but was terrible for keeping up with it. This time I really have to keep up with what is going on because appointments are only being scheduled on an emergency basis right now. She led me to an excellent electronic Seizure Diary here… https://www.epilepsy.com/living-epilepsy/epilepsy-foundation-my-seizure-diary

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Donna Jones — April 8, 2020 @ 11:03 AM

  5. Epilepsy has seriously destroyed my life.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by jjayp75 — April 7, 2020 @ 11:21 PM

  6. I had many spiritual experiences which are now thought to caused by my left temporal lobe epilepsy, where all those creative skills are found, many saints are now thought to have had seizures, not visions-St Paul was stopped on a road by a blinding light and heard a voice, St Theresa had experiences which can now be seen as epilepsy, and many more, epilepsy is fascinating, pity they never give us the time and money for research

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Gail Barry — April 8, 2020 @ 3:45 AM

    • Epilepsy has had a creative and positive experience for some. Some gain spirituality. Some, anger.

      But yes, much research is needed. Not only for a cure, but to see just how the brain ticks and ultimately what causes these behaviors, in some extraordinary people.

      Like

      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 8, 2020 @ 10:18 AM

  7. A list of amazing epileptics is gladdening. But, you missed my favorite and personal hero… Flo Jo. Florence Griffith Joyner was an African American Olympic Gold medalist who died of Sudep. She is considered the fastest woman to have ever lived. Her speed records have lasted for decades. Despite Grand Mals, Dilantin and Postictal blurs she ran like the wind.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by leica2015 — April 8, 2020 @ 8:22 AM

  8. It is amazing how people with epilepsy are often found to be very creative and discover new things. I believe Thomas Edison also had epilepsy and studies are finding people with temporal lobe seizures are more spiritually connected. Unfortunately, we are still very discriminated against and feared because of society’s ignorance of seizures. Even the ADA had to be amended to address people with epilepsy and that did not take effect until 2008. This is why I have feared the outcome of the seizures more than the seizures themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Jon Sadler — April 8, 2020 @ 10:18 AM

    • I think, as Gail said: the spirituality is a form of epilepsy. And, it’s somewhat of a miracle. (In my humble opinion.)

      But yes, the discrimination and ignorance goes on.

      Not to mention our own fear of having a seizure.

      It’s like a black cloud hanging over your head.

      You never know when the storm will strike.

      Like

      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 8, 2020 @ 10:29 AM

  9. Ooops. Sorry Leica.

    Flo Jo is in the article: Famous Athletes with Epilepsy https://epilepsytalk.com/2015/05/02/famous-athletes-with-epilepsy/

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 8, 2020 @ 10:22 AM


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    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.

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