Saturday, February 03, 2007

Abe Lincoln's Nerves?

One of the fascinating things about history is how modern science allows us to look back and view long-dead people in a more complete light.
Historians and scientists have long bandied about medical diagnoses of President Abraham Lincoln. Chronic depression has been proposed and disputed; Marfan’s syndrome has been proposed to account for his disproportionately long limbs and large hands; and now a study of genes from Abe’s descendants has led to the idea he might have had a nerve disorder, ataxia, which could have accounted for the awkward, lumbering gait remarked on by Lincoln’s contemporaries. That gait seemed out of place for a man who, even as President, liked to show off the strength from his rail-splitting days by holding an ax out at arm’s length for several minutes, parallel to the ground, holding it with only his thumb and forefinger.
We may never have full knowledge of great figures from the past, but this kind of detective work is endlessly interesting stuff.
NOTE: It’s off topic, but anyone interested in Lincoln should read a superb book by Doris Kerns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. As hard as it is to imagine Abe is underrated, Goodwin makes the case that he is.

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