Top 10 Famous Hypochondriacs

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No one wants to get sick. Don’t we all wrap up warm in winter to insulate ourselves from the cold and be extra careful around snot-nosed ill people? Only a few of us, though, ever get really serious about it. For instance, have you ever spent a day picking up everything with a tissue? Or taken detailed notes of your flatulence? Or simply retired from human interaction altogether and conversed through letters and the phone because it’s so much more sanitary? Well these famous folks have. And you thought the famous were happy.

10. Charles Darwin

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Against the hordes of illogical religious fundamentalists who brow beat the secular, or just the less militant, with their insidious dogma stands one man: Charles Darwin. With his theory of evolution the scientific world attacks religious fundamentalists with the logical wisdom of the great scientist. Is evolution real? Look, here is the evidence. See?! Well one man who cared little for logic and medical evidence and believed wholly in the imagined fantasies of his own mind was one Charles Darwin. Charlie was an adorably neurotic hypochondriac who loved treatments like “water cures” for his perceived ailments, where he would take a cold bath and be wrapped in wet sheets (and rubbed down with them). The famous scientist also kept meticulous records of his own flatulence.

9. Abigail Breslin

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To prove that imagining illness is not just confined to the fully-grown, Little Miss Sunshine star Abigail Breslin has also admitted to suffering from the ailment. Breslin is something of a child prodigy. For instance, at the age of three most of us are busy perfecting sentence structure while trying to screw play dough into electrical sockets, but not Abigail. Instead, she was appearing in her first commercial- an advertisement for Toys ‘r’ Us. By the time she’d hit the heady heights of five she had matured into doing full-length feature films, appearing in 2002’s Signs. After leaving her first decade behind, Brelsin clearly thought it best to finally achieve something and so got herself an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress for her role in Little Miss Sunshine. She lost out to Jennifer Hudson’s performance in Dream Girls. Behind all this success lay one secret that had surely held back the over-achieving young tike for years, she was terrified of getting ill. In an interview with LAmagazine.com, the button-nosed star admitted that she is not allowed to watch medical shows on TV for fear of finding something else to suffer from. In fact, from the age of three or four she was terrified of stepping on glass so she always wore shoes…even in bed. For a long time she thought she had bird flu and so refused go near birds. When asked what symptoms she had, she replied. “I didn’t really have any symptoms.”

8. Adolf Hitler

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World domination, fighting a war on a number of fronts and attempting to wipe out an entire race of people were just a few of the things Hitler fixated on. However, all the time he was preoccupied with one thing: the state of his health. He obsessed over it, even though there was little actually wrong with him (well, besides the evil). And when a maniacal dictator tells you he’s sick, you better believe he’s sick. He was prescribed various medicines for all kinds of ailments both real and imagined, such as: mood swings, Parkinson’s disease, gastro-intestinal issues and skin problems. Often he gave no real reason at all behind wanting the medication. The medicine prescribed, however, was not the placebo often given to noted hypochondriacs today. It included topical cocaine, injected amphetamines, glucose, testosterone and corticosteroids. Given the treatment on offer is it any wonder he never travelled anywhere without his medical chest and rarely without a doctor.

7. Hans Christian Andersen

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A great storyteller must have a fierce imagination. Andersen’s of course led him to write many of the finest and oft repeated fairy tales ever. Stories like The Snow Queen, The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Ducklinghave been repeated – with their creepy undercurrent and social message – for decades. A good imagination can also lead to other things, though. Worries, let’s call them. Hans Christian had an awful lot of them. For example, on a trip around Europe he worried about swallowing a pin in some meat, a small spot above his eye (that he felt might eventually cover half his face), and a knee complaint (that he felt might rupture). His insecurities led as far as the morbid fear of being buried alive; he apparently travelled with a note that read, “I only seem dead.” Still his deathly fascination did make him a wonderful storyteller, if a horrible travel companion.

6. Andy Warhol

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In the most extreme cases of hypochondria it can lead to an actual hastening of the sufferer’s death. This was something that might just have happened to, Andy Warhol, a particular neurotic creative type. Warhol’s art today is ridiculously ubiquitous, from Warholised Barack Obamas to his iconic Eight Elvis’s – which sold in 2009 for $100m. He is the king of pop art and is synonymous with the Avant Garde movement of the sixties. He was also a raging hypochondriac. Like any artist should be, he was obsessed with perfection- more specifically his own. He desperately wanted to improve his appearance and hated the thought of anything which might hinder that, namely aging and illness. He kept detailed notes of his sickness fears and after an attempt was made on his life in 1968 he would cross the street rather than pass a hospital. He really, really hated hospitals. As a result when he was having recurring gallbladder problems he refused to check himself into a hospital. Eventually the pain being too much he went in for surgery and died a few days later from complications from the operation.

5. Marcel Proust

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The French have always been great thinkers, writers, philosophers and the international standard for smug people, but sometimes all that introspection which accompanies such predilections can lead to trouble. Take Marcel Proust. An acclaimed writer and critic, he’s best known for his giant seven-volume tome Remembrance of Things Past. His solipsistic nature perhaps inevitably led to a few problems. Well more than a few. By the end of his life his health fears were so pronounced that there were strict instructions issued to his servant on how to enter his room. Terrified of certain smells, visitors were warned not to bring flowers or wear perfume near the fragile writer. Using carpet polish on the floors was completely out of the question. Then there was his bathroom. It is a horror of trouble for any poor paranoid soul of course, so between 20 – 25 towels were left inside Proust’s toilet hole and discarded after only one use. Noise was also an issue, so he lined his room with cork to keep it at bay. Perhaps inevitably he then developed an apparent allergy to cork. (Image: Man Ray’s photograph of a deceased Proust on his death bed.)

4. Tennessee Williams

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Williams was a talented fellow. Author of 24 full-length plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,he received every top theatrical award going for his work. He was one of the finest writers ever. Also he was neurotic as hell. He was intensely shy and feigned disinterest in reviews when in reality a bad one could destroy him. His greatest works were torn from the shrapnel of his own mind. This insecurity perhaps goes some way to explaining why he was so terrified of getting sick. To counteract his worries, he took a whole heap of prescribed pills for his phantom pains and worries. Eventually he became hooked on them…as well as alcohol. It was to prove something of a lethal combination. Constant use of drink and prescribed drugs had hindered his gag reflex. So, when the cap from a bottle of eye-drops he used became lodged in his throat he choked to death, where a regular non-alcoholic hypochondriac might well have lived.

3. Glen Gould

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Being a bit of a genius seems to be a prerequisite for the old obsessive hypochondriac and Glen Gould is no different. Throughout his life he became one of the most celebrated classical musicians of the 20th century. He was also a renowned eccentric. For instance,when playing the piano he happily hummed along like an enthusiastic child. On the other side, he was notoriously obsessive about all sorts of things. Things like the temperature in a recording studio had to be exactly regulated; as did the height of his piano, which was almost always laid upon bricks. He would sit exactly 14 inches above the floor- always on top of an old chair his father had made. Then there was the fear of falling ill. This drove him to constantly wear heavy clothing, like scarves and gloves, even in the middle of summer. It also occasionally led to one of the world’s finest musician’s being mistaken for a tramp. He also hated being touched and rarely shook hands as result. By the end of his life in fact, he decided to just exclude the germ-infested creatures that people are altogether. He chose to  simply talk on the phone and write letters instead, while keeping a diary of his ailments, like all good hypochondriacs.

2. Florence Nightingale

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There are few more famous fighters of disease and illness than Florence Nightingale. Her name is synonymous with care, helping the sick and tending the wounds of fallen soldiers in the Crimean War. Over the years the world’s most famous nurse has won innumerable praise and awards. She also established the first secular nursing school in the world in the form of St. Thomas’ Hospital in London in 1860.  The Nightingale Pledge taken by new nurses is named after her  and International Nurses Day is celebrated on her birthday. This is all the more remarkable given that she spent the majority of her life in bed convinced she was suffering from a litany of illnesses, such as headaches and heart disease, and always felt she was on the verge of death. She finally succumbed to the great reaper in 1910 at the grand old age of 90, having spent the previous 57 years almost entirely bedridden.

1.Howard Hughes

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There is no one more notorious for his fear of sickness than millionaire, entrepreneur and crazy coconut Howard Hughes. Aviator, film producer, director and philanthropist (among other things), Howard Hughes will forever be remembered as the guy who holed himself up in hotel rooms for months on end, just to be on the safe side. Not only was hypochondria a problem, so was obsessive compulsive disorder. For instance, he was noted for being very particular about his peas and would regularly sort them by size with his fork. On the set of The Outlaw he fixated on a minor flaw on Jane Russell’s blouse and wound up writing a detailed memorandum on the “problem”. Later he would lock himself in his projection room for four months while urinating into surrounding bottles. By 1968, when he decided to watch Ice Station Zebra 150 times, his eccentricities – or mental illness – were infamous. Hypochondria was one of his biggest problems. He picked up everything with tissues to insulate himself from germs and obsessed over dust and dirt on other people’s clothes, demanding they remove it. Hughes’ problem might well have stemmed from his enormous wealth. It meant he was never forced to get the help he clearly needed as his myriad of problems could always be indulged. When he refused to leave a hotel for fear of going back into the outside world he could simply buy the property. When he got a hankering for Banana Ripple Ice Cream – ice cream that was no longer being made – his handlers paid Baskin Robbins to make 200 Gallons of it. Then he decided he didn’t want it anymore. By the time of his death he was all but unrecognizable. His nails, hair and beard had grown long and his body was emaciated. The once dashing millionaire was a walking embodiment of the paranoia and fear which haunted him.

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by Kevin Forde.


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10 Comments

  1. Glenn Gould goes down as one of histories greatest hypochondriacs. Certainly of the 20th century. He was so bad that he took 60 different medications a DAY due to side effects from other medications. In other words when medicine gave him side effects, he always had another type of medication to alleviate the side effects. There is a story about him when he was gearing up for a performance in Sarasota, Fla in the SUMMERTIME. Imagine how hot and humid it was but Gould wore outside a winter overcoat, A wool hat, and winter gloves. The Sarasota Police arrested him and brought him to the police station. When the police were told who they had in custody, they let him go Scott Free. He also had a clairvoyant vision of dying at the age of 50. In 1982, he died……….at the age of 50.

  2. darkknight9761 on

    Fascinating list. Some of the people on the list surprised me, (Florence Nighingale for one). I kept waiting for Howard Hughes to show up, and sure enough he was #1. An earlier comment was made about Howie Mandel. I’d forgotten about his germaphobia. I don’t think, however, that his phobias are a paralyzing as those on this list. He is, however, eccentric.

    • To darkknight : You have brought up an interesting point in that there is a difference between someone with a phobia and someone who is a chondriac. I’ll have to dig in and see what I can come up with. Thank You for pointing that out.

  3. Great listing. But i think Florence Nightingale should be on the top of the list as, she has done various social works.

  4. Rather than hypochondriacs, these people might be described as suffering from OCD (obsessive -compulsive disorder) No doubt they were/are geniuses but there is a lot of madness within genius.

    • To Mayra. I totally agree with you as far as geniuses and madness. Just look at No.1 Howard Hughes. It is documented that he was mentally insane, but his innovations will live on for decades perhaps centuries. I did some research on phobias and there is one called Anemophobia……Its people who have a fear of AIR !!! Yes, the air that we breath. I’ll never figure that one out

  5. Top Ten Lists on

    I agree with Mayra lol, Somehow Einstein comes in mind when reading this list though (refering to the famous picture of him with his tongue out lol)

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