With the huge success of Steven Spielberg’s recent movie, “Lincoln,” it is a great time for any historian to come out with a book on Abraham Lincoln and anything surrounding him or the American Civil War. Historian Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein has, however, recently come out with a fascinating study of the medical history of the Lincoln family that would arguably gain attention and praise no matter when it was released.
For decades — even generations — historians and laymen alike have wondered and theorized whether the Civil War President, the Great Emancipator, suffered from one or more serious medical disease(s) that may have influenced his life, his mind or even the ultimate time of his death. Likewise, the possible medical conditions of his wife and children have long fascinated historians not only for their own sake but also for the possible connections they may have had to Lincoln himself.
So, did Abraham Lincoln suffer from Marfan syndrome, cancer, mercury poisoning, syphilis? Was Mary Lincoln clinically insane? Did Willie Lincoln die in the White House from typhoid fever or something else? These are some of the questions Schroeder-Lein addresses in her new book, Lincoln and Medicine, a volume in the Concise Lincoln Library series published by Southern Illinois University Press.
Schroder-Lein, a manuscripts librarian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill., and author of three previous books, including The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine, does a wonderful job of outlining and surveying all the possible medical diagnoses of Lincoln without getting bogged down by her own personal conclusions. Rather, she attempts to identify and “take into account” all the possible major theories of Lincoln’s medical life as a way to update the scanty offerings on the general subject.
In fact, as Schroeder-Lein points out in her introduction, while there have been numerous articles published on Lincoln’s medical history, and a few diagnosis-specific books offered, there has not been a general overview volume on this topic since the 1933 book, Lincoln and the Doctors: A Medical Narrative of the Life of Abraham Lincoln, by Milton Shutes.
So what are the historical medical diagnoses of Abraham Lincoln?
“Over the course of time, an increasing number of conditions and diseases have been attributed to Lincoln, including (alphabetically) aortic regurgitation, ataxia, attention deficit disorder, cancer, cardiac insufficiency, congestive heart failure, crossed eyes, depression, epilepsy, homosexuality, hypogonadism, Marfan syndrome, MEN2B, mercury poisoning, syphilis, thyroid problems and tuberculosis. Obviously, Lincoln could not have had all the diseases alleged and survived to be assassinated,” Schroeder-Lein writes.
Lincoln and Medicine looks at all the possible diseases, but focuses on some of the more popular ones. The most common diagnosis was that Lincoln suffered from Marfan syndrome, a disease which is characterized by especially long and thin limbs, eye trouble and heart problems that typically lead to an early death.
One of the two trendiest accusations is that Lincoln suffered from syphilis, which he supposedly acquired from a prostitute when he was a young man in the 1830s. This idea was proclaimed by Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon, based on no evidence but his own “recollection.” Herndon also advanced the idea to declare that Lincoln gave the disease to his wife Mary, who then passed it on to the children, which is why three of them died so young.
The other trendy topic in recent years is Lincoln’s alleged homosexuality, which Schroeder-Lein shows to be the “highly unlikely” fairy tale that it is.
The newest medical theory on Lincoln was advanced by physician John G. Sotos in his 2008 book The Physical Lincoln, in which he diagnosed Lincoln to have suffered a genetic condition known as multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2b (or MEN2B for short). This disease creates certain bodily traits similar to Marfan’s Syndrome (hence the previous Marfan diagnoses), but also includes depression and constipation, which are two issues Lincoln is known to have suffered. Sotos’ real revelation in his theory, however, is that since MEN2B is a form of cancer, Sotos theorizes that Lincoln’s physical deterioration during his years as president shows he was being eaten away by cancer and would have died in 1865 even if he had not been assassinated.
Also in the book Schroeder-Lein surveys the medical issues of Lincoln’s wife and sons, especially the hot topic of Mary Lincoln’s insanity (which the Schroder-Lein thinks an exaggerated diagnosis of mental troubles), and the deaths and illnesses of Willie, Tad and Robert Lincoln both during and after the Civil War.
To all of these, and other, diagnoses of Lincoln (and his family) in the book, Schroeder-Lein does an excellent job explaining the disease, offering the opinions postulated both for and against the disease, and suggesting her own possible explanation without being dogmatic in her assertions. Such an even-handed examination makes Lincoln and Medicine an exemplary offering to Lincoln studies, especially as a primer for those who know little or nothing about the subject of the family’s medical history.
The succinctness of the book — 89 pages of text, but a total 128 pages including notes, bibliography and index — adds to the value of its historical contribution in that it relates the facts and theories and offers a general survey of the issue without overstating, overstepping or getting verbose. Readers who become interested in a certain topic can use the book as a resource to find the referenced books for further reading.
After more than 200 years since Lincoln’s birth, every aspect of his life continues to be dissected — including his medical life. “As this study shows, it can be extremely difficult to properly diagnose the physical problems that afflicted Lincoln and his family. The remaining evidence is almost always too fragmentary to provide a conclusive answer. Nevertheless, enough information survives to test theories, narrow options and suggest logical conclusions,” Schroeder-Lein concludes.
Jason Emerson is the author of numerous books and articles on Abraham Lincoln and his family, and is editor of the Skaneateles Press. He can be reached at [email protected].