Sometimes, history is gross. Really gross. Especially where diseases are concerned. We’ve all heard of the nasty stuff the past could serve up for our ancestors. What we might not know is just how many famous historic figures got walloped with these awful diseases. From the utterly weird to the utterly terrifying to the simply disgusting, it turns out being famous in Ye Olde Times was nothing more than one long string of disgusting incidents, one after the other.
10. Edgar Allan Poe Died of Rabies
The death of Edgar Allan Poe in 1849 has long been a freaky source of mystery. After vanishing for nearly a week after leaving his home in Richmond, Virginia, the poet finally turned up lying in a gutter in Baltimore, wearing someone else’s clothes and nearly incoherent. Poe then spent four days suffering extreme hallucinations, before spiraling into madness and dying. At the time, the cause of his death (and the circumstances surrounding it) were considered a total mystery.
We still don’t know for absolute certain what killed him, as that would require DNA testing. But in 1996, Dr. R. Michael Benitez was participating in a conference where medical practitioners were given an anonymous patient and a list of symptoms and asked to diagnose them. Unbeknownst to him, Benitez was given Poe. The specialist doctor took one look at the ‘anonymous patient’s’ file and declared it “a clear case of rabies.”
In the 19th century, rabies was extremely common. It now seems likely Poe was bitten by a rabid animal and succumbed to the horrifying disease before he could tell anyone. While the theory isn’t one hundred percent watertight – Poe showed no signs of hydrophobia, which is a common symptom of rabies – it may well be the closest we ever get to solving this aptly ghoulish mystery.
9. Beethoven was Born with Syphilis
One of our favorite pieces of trivia is that Beethoven, the legendary composer who wrote some of the best music in history, was deaf. From the mid-1790s, he was affected by a buzzing noise in his ears. By the age of 30 he was losing his hearing badly. Many of his greatest works were written after that time.
One tidbit often gets left out of this story. A few years back, the University of Maryland’s annual Historical Clinicopathological Conference decided to look into what might have caused Beethoven’s deafness. Although the passage of time has made it impossible to say for certain, they did come up with one candidate they thought extremely likely: syphilis.
One symptom of syphilis can be deafness, and syphilis was way common in Beethoven’s time. It’s thought his father had it, which may go some way toward explaining how Beethoven got infected. Like HIV, syphilis can be passed from mother to child in the womb. If Beethoven’s dad had infected his mom, it’s almost certain that’s where the composer’s ear-destroying STI came from.
8. Tutankhamun Looked Like an Inbred Yokel
Today, it’s widely known that inbreeding is a bad idea. Aside from being totally gross, getting jiggy with your sister can result in a child suffering truly awful disabilities. In Ancient Egypt, though, they hadn’t quite figured that out yet. Royals thought inbreeding would help keep their line pure. Instead, it resulted in pharaohs who looked like inbred yokels. One of whom was the legendary Tutankhamun.
King Tut came from a long line of inbreds and boy did it show. In the words of the Wall Street Journal, King Tut had “anterior incisors and an overbite (buck teeth), a cleft palate, curvature of the spine (scoliosis), a club foot and a grossly elongated head (dolichocephaly). He also had feminine breasts and hips, as did several of his male predecessors. Almost certainly, there were other undetected defects of vital organs.” In other words, this ancient king looked less like some great and powerful ruler, and more like the sort of guy you might see looking for work as an extra in the remake of Deliverance.
7. Samuel Johnson Probably Had Tourette Syndrome
Samuel Johnson was one of the wittiest writers of his time. A coarse, vulgar beast of a man, he palled around with guys like Johnathon Swift, while redefining what the English language was capable of. He was also pretty odd. Contemporary accounts report that he liked to make weird-ass noises while sitting in polite company, and had a compulsive habit of rubbing his knee while talking. On the streets, he was prone to gesticulating wildly at nothing.
Do those symptoms sound familiar? They might. Although Dr. Johnson’s tics caused hilarity at the time, modern doctors have posthumously diagnosed him with Tourette Syndrome. While the most-commonly depicted form involves shouting out swear words, plenty of sufferers are simply stuck making nervous twitches and involuntary noises. Dr. Johnson was evidently one-such sufferer. He used to cluck like a hen, shake his head wildly and whistle uncontrollably. It got so bad in later life that gangs of children used to follow him down the street, pointing and laughing.
6. H.P. Lovecraft’s Weird Cold Aversion
Horror maestro H.P. Lovecraft was one peculiar dude. For one thing, he was a lifelong anti-Semite who managed to absently-mindedly marry a Jewish woman. For another, he was obsessed with the dangers of interbreeding, in a way that went beyond bog-standard racism and into a pathological fear. But perhaps weirdest of all might be his strange aversion to the cold. If the temperature ever dropped too low, Lovecraft was apt to collapse into a dead faint from which he couldn’t be woken until warmed up again.
Interestingly, we have absolutely no idea what caused this. It seemed to come on in the writer’s adulthood and wasn’t triggered by any one thing. Some have linked it to his frequent migraines, while others have suggested it was psychological. Lovecraft himself seemed to link it to the cancer that eventually killed him. At any rate, it made him develop an extreme paranoia about the cold, a paranoia that filtered through into some of his stories like the gruesome Cool Air.
5. Darwin’s Whole Life was One Big Puke-a-thon
About a year after his long voyage on the Beagle, Charles Darwin developed a bizarre condition that would haunt him for the rest of his life. About three hours after eating, he would get extreme abdominal pains, followed by hideous nausea. Moments later, he would expel everything in a great big vomit-a-thon that left him utterly exhausted. At some points in his life, the condition got so bad that he was basically rendered an invalid. The freakiest part of all? We still don’t know what caused it.
Although all Darwin’s friends thought he was a hypochondriac, modern doctors have subsequently diagnosed him with Cyclical Vomiting Syndrome (CVS). The problem is we’re still not sure what really causes it. While Darwin could get an accurate diagnosis if he was alive today, even in 2016 his doctors likely couldn’t do a lot to help. Was it maybe related to his time at sea? Who the heck knows?
4. Julius Caesar Had Endless Strokes
You may have heard before that Julius Caesar had epilepsy. Certainly that’s what people have thought for centuries. When you take into account his symptoms – such as collapsing into fits – it definitely sounds plausible. But a recent study from 2015 has another idea. According to the authors, there’s a good chance Caesar suffered a catastrophic series of mini-strokes.
The technical name for these is a series of Transient Ischemic Attacks, but it amounts to the same thing. Rather than suffering the same illness as people like Graham Greene and Ian Curtis, the ruler of Rome may well have had a series of debilitating strokes. If that’s the case, it’s perhaps lucky for Caesar’s posterity that he got assassinated when he did. A proper stroke could have left him utterly incapacitated and at the mercy of his enemies; a far worse fate than the quick, brutal stabbing that ultimately felled him.
3. Lenin’s Brain was Turning to Stone
When he finally died, infamous revolutionary Vladimir Lenin was only 53 years old. His death came on the tail-end of a series of strokes, and shortly after, he was placed in Stalin’s personal care. At the time, nobody knew what the heck was wrong with him. First Russian doctors suspected mental exhaustion. Then lead poisoning. Finally, they just rolled with syphilis on the basis that seemingly everybody in the olden days had the dreaded French disease.
It wasn’t until they performed an autopsy on the dead Communist that they uncovered the horrifying truth. Lenin’s brain had been slowly turning to stone.
The technical name for his condition was cerebrovascular atherosclerosis, and it’s creepy as hell. Basically, calcium deposits built up in his cerebral arteries to the point they became nearly solid. When the morticians tapped the affected areas with tweezers, they made a sound like stone. Creepily, this wasn’t a case of 1920s man running up against something he didn’t understand and being helpless in the face of it. Even today, someone with Lenin’s condition would be unlikely to live much longer than he did.
2. Akhenaten Probably Suffered a Hormone Disorder
The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten likely came from the same line that later produced the yokel-like Tutankhamun. With that in mind, you’d probably expect to find that he had some weird stuff going on. And you’d be right: Akhenaten suffered the same elongated head as his more-famous descendant.
But Akhenaten also had some strange gripes that were all his own. In 2009, professor of dermatology and an expert on visual diagnosis at the Yale University School of Medicine, Irwin Braverman, came up with his own theory. Akhenaten was probably suffering a hormone disorder that made his male body look like it belonged to a woman.
In ancient drawings, Akhenaten is often depicted as having wide hips, a narrow waist and feminine breasts. Yet we know for a fact that the ancient ruler was male. Seems like somebody’s made a mistake, until you realize the pharaoh’s genetic defects caused by inbreeding could have left him with an extreme hormone imbalance. Specifically, overproduction of the enzyme aromatase could have caused his body to be flooded with estrogen from an early age.
That would explain how a guy who is meant to be male could wind up looking so spectacularly female in ancient engravings. However, since we’ve yet to find Akhenaten’s mummy, we still can’t say for certain that this is the case.
1. King Herod Had Some of the Nastiest Ailments in History
Herod the Great was an overachieving king who, among other things, built the largest artificial harbor in the Mediterranean. Today, though, he’s mainly remembered for ordering the Slaughter of the Innocents in an attempt to kill baby Jesus – something many now think never actually happened. Apparently, God didn’t get the memo. When it came time to shove Herod off this mortal coil, He did it in the nastiest way possible.
According to the ancient writer Flavius Josephus (who lived about 100 years after Herod died), the king “had a fever, though not a raging fever, an intolerable itching of the whole skin, continuous pains in the intestines, tumors of the feet as in dropsy, inflamation of the abdomen, and gangrene of the privy parts.” He also suffered convulsions of the limbs and had foul, fetid breath that could strip paint. But the real awful bit is contained in those last five words: gangrene of the privy parts. Herod’s junk was so awash with bacteria that it literally began dying while it was still attached to him.
Today, we know this disease as Fournier’s Gangrene, and it’s basically one of the most-painful, disgusting ways you can possibly die. Except this isn’t what actually killed Herod, but was likely a final – and extremely painful – complication. In fact, it’s now thought that chronic kidney disease did the Biblical king in. Maybe so, but it’s the image of his decaying wang falling apart as its flesh is eaten away that’s really gonna stick with us.