As the famous saying popularized by Stan Lee’s Spider-Man (2002) movie goes: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Similar to that, though not quite as woven into comic book culture, is the phrase “With great genius comes great risk of mental illness.” Not quite as sexy, but just as fascinating! Especially when you apply that concept to some of the sharpest minds in human history.
For over a century, speculations have been developed regarding the specific conditions suffered by many of these individuals. As it turns out, some of the brightest people throughout history have been heavily associated with fits, extreme oddness, and plain-old insanity. If you were hoping to change the world through the powers of your mind, you might think again after reading this list of some of the top geniuses that humankind has ever known, who also suffered deeply from mental woes.
1. Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)
Who better to start the list of geniuses than the most famous individual in history to cut off his own ear? (Link 1) Indeed, van Gogh did slice off his left earlobe in 1888, with a razor blade, and then subsequently painted a self portrait of himself, cleverly entitled “Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear”. However, the behaviors of this genius who changed the face of the artistic world – with paintings such as “Starry Night”, “The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum”, Starry Night over the Rhone”, and “Irises, Saint-Remy” – indicated that he suffered from one or several different mental disorders.
Speculations (Link 2) about what condition was behind his bizarre behaviors – which ranged from attempting to eat paint to drinking turpentine, and from psychotic behaviors that aligned with the seasons to eventually committing suicide – have included bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, epilepsy, lead poisoning, acute intermittent porphyria, Méniere’s disease, and even sunstroke.
Even without following the fascinating world of mathematics over the years (likely because most of us would describe most of mathematics as less-than-fascinating), many of us can still name a very important Nobel Prize winning mathematician (won in the field of Economic Sciences). That person is John Nash, whose story was popularized (through some artistic license) in the movie “A Beautiful Mind”.
Nash (Link 3) created the “Nash Equilibrium” and has greatly progressed the concepts of game theory and economics through his contributions. Some of his ideas were used by the U.S. Military for their own Cold War tactics. At the same time that he has come up with these groundbreaking thoughts, Nash has also been suffering from schizophrenia, which has caused him to experience delusions and hallucinations, including hearing voices.
3. Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865)
Abraham Lincoln may have been the Great Emancipator who brought the United States through one of the most difficult periods in its own history, using his genius, strategy, and sheer gall, but he suffered severe consequences as a result. Indeed, the evening at Ford’s theatre was certainly a drawback to his political efforts, but aside from the loss of his life from the intensity of his career, he also suffered the loss of his mental health (Link 4).
Some of the most challenging times that he faced as U.S. President were also the periods in which he suffered from the most severe bouts of depression. He was seen as being greatly melancholy (Link 5) by those who knew him. It is even believed that he was the author behind a poem that was published in 1838, called “The Suicide’s Soliloquy”.
4. Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727)
Know as one of history’s most brilliant thinkers, Sir Isaac Newton (the guy we know best for being hit by an apple while sitting under an apple tree) made many broad-reaching contributions to both mechanics and physics. Many believe that his influence on these fields exceed that of Einstein. He invented calculus, developed laws of motion, explained “universal gravitation” and even constructed the first reflective telescope (Link 6). Take that, Einstein!
Outside of making unparalleled changes to our understanding of the way things are, Newton suffered from massive mood swings, psychotic tendencies, and antisocial behaviors. It is now believed that he likely suffered from bipolar disorder, but that because of his delusions (as described in his own letters) it is also thought that he was likely schizophrenic (Link 7). Many have speculated that his mental conditions may have been the outcome of a prolonged and highly traumatic childhood experience.
5. Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882)
The man behind “On the Origin of Species” and the tremendous controversy regarding his theories on evolution made contributions to biology and science that would change the way the world looked at all of the millions upon millions of species of life. He became famous for the voyage that he took on the Beagle over a period of five years, which was a time that defined and made his career, but during which he was nearly incapacitated for the full length of the trip. It is not known exactly what was wrong with him (Link 8) but he suffered from visual hallucinations, hysterical crying, constant trembling and nausea.
It has been speculated by many that these were all symptoms of a severe case of agoraphobia (Link 9), which were exacerbated from having to live in close quarters with the other people on the boat. After turning thirty, he was bedridden nearly all of the time, avoiding speaking with everybody; including his own children. At least one letter from Darwin mentioned that he had feelings of suicide as a result of the controversy associated with his most famous publication. It has also been suggested that he might have been a hypochondriac and that he suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), due to the meticulous records that he kept of each symptom – new or recurring – from which he suffered.
6. Yoshiro Nakamatsu (1928 – )
Yoshiro Nakamatsu is a genius inventor who has the world record for the largest number of patents that anyone has owned in history. While Thomas Edison is typically considered to be a massive patent owner, having slightly over a thousand to his name. Nakamatsu, on the other hand, has well over 3,000 of them, making Edison look like quite the slacker! Many of the patents are for items that the world uses on a daily basis, ranging from the CD to the DVD, and from the taxicab meter to the digital watch.
That said, in the great tradition of being a genius with mental illness, Nakamatsu also has a severe case of obsessive compulsive disorder. He conducts extensive analyses of everything that eats (made up almost entirely of “Yummy Nutri Brain Food” which consists of yogurt, seaweed, beef, cheese, eel, eggs, and chicken liver), meticulously recording and cataloging each ingredient and its related information, because he is determined to live to exactly 144 years of age (Link 10). He has dedicated his life to surviving for that precise number of years. He sleeps for exactly four hours every night and regularly holds his breath underwater until he brings himself near the point of death. He believes that depriving himself of oxygen to that degree provides him with the “flash” he requires to be inspired to invent something new, which he records on a special waterproof writing pad made of Plexiglas…that he invented.
7. Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849)
Due to the nature of the poetry and prose created by Edgar Allan Poe, it may not come as a complete surprise that he was suffering from a form of serious mental illness. His genius as a horror writer – having produced works such as “The Raven”, “The Masque of the Red Death”, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”, and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, and so on – is clear and has been celebrated worldwide.
Unfortunately, his skill as a poet did not save him from mental illness (Link 11), which included a drinking problem and a battle with suicidal thoughts, which he described in a number of letters. It has also been speculated that he may have had bipolar disorder. Although the circumstances and the causes of his death at the young age of 40 are not known, it is believed that it was likely linked to his drinking, which may have led to heart failure.
8. Nicola Tesla (1856 – 1943)
Nicola Tesla has made a long list of contributions to humanity and to the lives we live today. Among his inventions include wireless technology, the induction motor, radio astronomy, AC, radar, the Tesla Coil, and even robotics. Though he never actually created one, he was also the original person to think up the idea of a “death ray”.
Although an individual will typically need to be very focused on detail to be able to create the type of inventions that Tesla had on his list, he took that to the far extreme with a severe case of obsessive compulsive disorder (Link 12). He was obsessed with the number three, needing to circle the block 3 times (clockwise) before ever entering a building. He would stay in a hotel room only if its number was divisible by 3. At his meals, he would use precisely 9 napkins (which he stacked in piles of 3). Much of his mealtime was spent calculating his food volume before he would actually consume it. Another of his obsessions was with pigeons, which he loved to the degree that he would import special seeds so that he could feed these birds in the park. Occasionally, he would bring a pigeon home with him. He despised jewelry (particularly earrings, pearls, or a combination of the two), had a fear of anything metal and/or round, and would never touch anything with dust on it.
9. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
The musical genius of Ludwig van Beethoven is recognized not only for its profound beauty, but also because the composer of these magnificent works created many of them while completely deaf; a state which occurred at some point in his life between the ages of 30 and 49 years old. What is less commonly known is that Beethoven was the victim of a terrible childhood (Link 13), and that he was raised by a father who was both abusive and an alcoholic.
The struggles in his life, and in composing as he gradually lost his hearing caused Beethoven to battle with mental illness (Link 14), including suffering from thoughts of suicide, which he described in letters to his brothers. However, it is also believed that he was not just suicidal, but that he also had bipolar disorder. History has shown that the composer would have wild emotional bursts ranging from blissful euphoria to deep depression. This – and the digestive discomforts of which he frequently complained – may have been caused by lead poisoning, as tests of his hair samples have shown that they contained a lead content that was dangerously high.
10. Michelangelo (1475 – 1564)
One of the most skilled artists of all times, Michelangelo contributed to the world by adding stunning sculptures, paintings, architecture, poems, and even Renaissance engineering. He was the man behind the stunning ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, among other breathtaking pieces.
In 2004, however, the understanding of this artist changed when the Journal of Medical Biography published a study that suggested that he had clear signs of a high-functioning level of autism (Link 15). He had a well known single-minded routine and was, according to his friends and family “preoccupied with his own reality”. This was common among all of the male members of his family. Michelangelo was said to have experienced serious struggles in developing relationships with other people, having very few friends and not bothering to attend the funeral of his own brother. This, in combination with his clear genius in art as well as in mathematics, has brought researchers (Link 16) to believe that he likely had Asperger’s, the highest functioning condition on the autism spectrum.
We consider these ten geniuses to be among the greatest minds of all time, and yet it turns out that their minds were sometimes their own worst enemies. This certainly makes mediocrity a lot bit more appealing for the rest of us, doesn’t it?
Link 1 – http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sudden-genius/201103/does-madness-enhance-or-diminish-genius
Link 2 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8242520
Link 3 – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/nash/peopleevents/p_jnash.html
Link 4 – http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/05/01/abraham-lincoln-struggle-with-depression
Link 5 – http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/10/lincolns-great-depression/304247/
Link 6 – http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Newton.html
Link 7 – http://corrosion-doctors.org/Biographies/Newton.htm
Link 8 – http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/pub/2009/3/darwins-enigmatic-health
Link 9 – http://www.icr.org/article/112/
Link 10 – http://www.spike.com/articles/5xmj4e/the-top-10-crazy-bastards-who-actually-changed-the-world-for-the-better
Link 11 – http://iml.jou.ufl.edu/projects/Fall05/cusatis/
Link 12 – http://io9.com/5648455/the-mad-scientist-hall-of-fame-nikola-tesla
Link 13 – http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMbkrev58635
Link 14 – http://www.vaniercollege.qc.ca/tlc/publications/soundings/soundings-2008/philip-dehm.pdf
Link 15 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15079170
Link 16 – http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/news/20040526/did-michelangelo-have-autism