The concept of seizures dates back to several centuries, so much so that even Greek physician Hippocrates, born in 460 BC once wrote, “People think that epilepsy is divine simply because they don’t have any idea what causes epilepsy. But I believe that someday we will understand what causes epilepsy, and at that moment, we will cease to believe that it’s divine. And so it is with everything in the universe”. Even today, those who suffer from this medical condition have to face a lot of stigma because of the unnatural convulsions that they undergo, most often without warning. Onlookers either panic because of the lack of adequate awareness, or they conclude that the patient is possessed. However, as medicine progressed, what was once a mystery, ceases to be so and people are no longer ashamed about a condition they have no control over. There are many famous personalities who are epileptic, the causes ranging from serious medical issues to substance abuse. While historical figures are only conjectured to have suffered from seizures, celebrities nowadays have a proper diagnosis of their disorder. Take a look at these eminent figures who have epilepsy, from the past as well as the present.
Those Who Led The World
Though it is a known fact that Roman leader Julius Caesar suffered from at least four recorded seizure attacks, it is still unclear as to whether they were caused due to epilepsy. Family history noted down by historian Suetonius suggests that several others before Caesar were diagnosed with this condition. This makes it probable for the great ruler to have suffered from this disorder. In fact, Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton starrer, ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ too seems to have accepted the theory.
Alexander The Great
It is often surmised that King of Macedonia, Alexander the Great was epileptic owing to documented seizures which resulted from the medication he had ingested to cure pneumonia. Though the symptoms point towards the disorder in question, there is no proof for it yet.
Tsar Peter The Great
Also hailed as the ‘Father of Modern Russia’, Tsar Peter the Great was diagnosed with encephalitis when he was all of 21. Ever since then, he had regular paroxysms that were often accompanied by bouts of comatose.
The ‘Charles’ Coincidence
It looks like quite a few famous rulers suffered from brain convulsions, but here’s the catch. There were many named Charles, reigning over different parts of the world, who coincidentally were suspected to have had epilepsy. Be it the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, King Charles II of England or Spain’s Charles II, they were all afflicted with the same condition.
Prince John Of England
Epilepsy equated to such a social stigma that King George V’s youngest son Prince John was protected from public eye during World War I till he breathed his last at the age of thirteen. Not only did he endure fits, but was also suffering from probable autism.
It is widely believed that the famous Napoleon Bonaparte was often affected by psychogenic attacks. According to Canadian physician William Osler, the respected French military leader’s convulsions were a result of Stokes-Adams disease. However neurologist John Hughes attributes the paroxysms to epilepsy and anxiety, both caused by gonorrhea.
Pope Pius IX
Known for serving the longest term by election, Pope Pius IX had epilepsy since he was a child, and it was one of these attacks that took his life on 7 February 1878.
Martha Parke Custis
US President George Washington’s step daughter, Martha Parke Custis (lovingly called Patcy) suffered from epilepsy. Though Washington tried his best to help her recover, Martha’s battle against the disorder ended in 1773, when she died of an attack at the age of seventeen.
US President James Madison
James Madison, fourth US President, quite often kept unwell, with regular bouts of diarrhea, high temperature and convulsions that pointed towards epilepsy.
Founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin often encountered instances of apoplexy, which later led to him being afflicted with epilepsy. Just before he died, Lenin had continuous episodes of this life-threatening neurological disorder, which lasted 50 minutes and eventually succumbed to what is known as status epilepticus.
US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts
17th Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court had recorded episodes of paroxysms, the cause of which was never revealed.
Writers & Artists
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Russian Novelist
This Moscow-born writer of ‘Crime and Punishment’ fame was undoubtedly epileptic, since he penned several letters that described his experiences with the condition. Apart from real-life accounts, many of his novels too included characters that suffered from seizures, and each epileptic episode was delineated to the tee.
Leo Tolstoy, Russian Writer
It is not completely proven that this great author who inked the famous ‘War and Peace’ had epilepsy. However, just before he succumbed to pneumonia in 1910, Tolstoy did have several seizure attacks that were termed as “fits of spleen” by physicians of the time.
Vincent Van Gogh, Dutch Painter
Controversy still looms over whether Dutch Impressionist Van Gogh had epilepsy or not, but it is a fact that he often suffered from severe bouts of fits after drinking absinthe. What’s more, even his own physician, Felix Rey advised him to take potassium bromide, an accepted antidote for seizures. Irrespective of being epileptic or not, Vincent Van Gogh, who gave the world masterpieces such as ‘The Starry Night’ did have a mental condition that caused him to have violent convulsions.
Gustave Flaubert, French Author
Famous neurologist Henri Jean Gastaut suggested that French novelist Gustave Flaubert, who shot to fame with ‘Madame Bovary’, had complex partial epilepsy. Recent studies, however, have led other physicians to conclude that this writer suffered from psychogenic non-epileptic seizures.
Lord Byron, English Poet
If you’ve read the love poem, ‘She Walks in Beauty’, then you should know a secret about the poet Lord Byron. This famous writer would often have frequent convulsive attacks resulting in foaming at the mouth, unconsciousness and violent trembles. It has been concluded that Byron probably suffered from psychogenic seizures.
Richard Burton was an alcoholic, and from the time that he endeavored to quit drinking, his seizures began as a withdrawal symptom. No wonder his efforts in the movie ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ (where he played the epileptic Roman leader) paid off.
Since this neurological condition was most often considered a smirch, a lot of people getting fits would try to hide the fact. Bud Abbot, of ‘Abbott and Costello’ fame, was no exception to the rule. In fact, he attempted to hide his childhood disorder behind the curtain of alcohol abuse.
This is one actor who has taken convulsions in his stride. Glover, known mainly for his portrayal of Detective Sergeant Roger Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon, first experienced an episode of spasm when he was 15. However, he took to meditation accompanied by a healthy lifestyle, and he hasn’t had a single attack since the age of 35.
Hugo Weaving made a huge name for himself after playing Elrond in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. He publicly admits that he has been on medication for epilepsy since the age of 13.
Margaux Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter, was prescribed phenobarbital as a treatment for longtime seizures. However, this beautiful actress succumbed to an overdose of the medicine made worse by binge drinking.
Famous sprinter, Florence Griffith Joyner had recurrent episodes of convulsions attributed to unusual blood vessels in the brain. It was during one such seizure that she died in her sleep.
NFL Football Players
NFL players, Samari Rolle, Jason Snelling and Alan Faneca have all declared publicly that they have been diagnosed with epilepsy. Faneca is an active representative of the ‘Epileptic community’.
US women’s hockey team goalkeeper, Chanda Gunn has been suffering from the neurological disorder since she was just nine years old. To spread awareness about the otherwise hush-hush medical condition, Gunn plays a major role in the ‘Epilepsy Therapy Project’.
NBA star Bobby Jones has been an epileptic and it is considered that he was lucky to be playing any sport at all.
Other Eminent Personalities
Alfred Nobel, who gave us the famous Nobel Prize as well as the dynamite, wrote about his disorder saying, “I scarce could muster strength to drain the breast, and the convulsions that followed, till I gasped upon the brink of nothingness.” Whether these epileptic symptoms continued into his adult life, is still unclear.
Venerable Russian composer Tchaikovsky began getting frequent attacks of spasms after he was diagnosed with cholera. Hence his seizures are often related with his terminal disease.
American screenwriter and novelist, Capote’s recurrent paroxysms were ascribed to alcohol abuse and subsequent withdrawal.
This US politician is known for being the trailblazer of the ‘Americans with Disabilities Act’ passed in 1990. The Act came about because of Coelho’s lifelong battle with seizures. He has also been made the honorary life chairperson of the ‘Epilepsy Foundation’.
Prominent singer, Neil Young is known for having once quipped, “The aneurysm, polio, epilepsy – all those things are just part of the landscape.” Kudos to his spirit, for this musician of the ‘Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’ fame fought a convulsion attack right in the middle of a performance.
Prince, popular American singer, once admitted to having been “born epileptic”. He has even chronicled his neurological disorder in the song, ‘The Sacrifice of Victor’.
Scratch disc jockey, DJ Hapa acts as one of the spokespersons of the ‘Epilepsy Therapy Project’ and is publicly known as one those famous people with the condition.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfRjwDolLT8In 2009, Kelly Preston and John Travolta’s son Jett, who also had autism, passed away after getting fits. The American actor of ‘Grease’ fame admitted that it was ”the worst thing that’s ever happened in my life”.