Popular Science Monthly/Volume 59/July 1901/A Study of British Genius VI

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IN a large proportion of cases no reference is made by the national biographers to the diseases from which their subjects suffered, nor to the general state of health. This, however, we could scarcely expect to find, except in those cases in which the state of health had an obvious influence on the life and work of the eminent person. In most of these exceptional cases it is probable that the biographers have duly called attention to the facts, and though the information thus attained is not always precise—in part owing to the imperfection of the knowledge transmitted, in part to the medical ignorance of the biographers, and in part to the deliberate vagueness of their reference to 'a painful malady,' etc.—it enables us to reach some very instructive conclusions concerning the pathological conditions to which men of genius are most liable.

Putting aside the cases of delicate health in childhood, with which I have already dealt in a previous section, the national biographers state the cause of death, or mention serious diseased conditions during life, in 322 cases.

It is natural to find that certain diseased conditions which are very common among the ordinary population are also very common among men of preeminent intellectual ability. Thus, a lesion of the vessels in the brain (the condition commonly described as paralysis, apoplexy, effusion on the brain, etc.) is a very common cause of death among the general population, and we also find that it is mentioned thirty-five times by the national biographers. Consumption, also, so prevalent among the general population, occurred in at least thirty cases. "While many of the consumptive men of genius lived to past middle age, or even reached a fairly advanced age, the disease is responsible for the early death of most of the more eminent of those men of genius who died young—of Keats in poetry, of Bonington and Girtin in art, of Purcell (probably) in music. Some appear to have struggled with consumptive tendencies during a fairly long life; these have usually been men of letters, and have sometimes shown a feverish literary activity, their intellectual output being perhaps more remarkable for quantity than quality. But Sterne in literature, and Black, Priestley, Clifford and other eminent men of science are to be found among the consumptives. It is evident that the disease by no means stands in the way of all but the very highest intellectual attainments, even if it is not indeed actually favorable to mental activity.

Other forms of lung diseases are only mentioned fifteen times. The striking point here is the remarkable frequency of asthma in so small a group. It occurs nine times. It is fairly evident that in nearly all these cases we are concerned with true spasmodic asthma, a malady of the nervous system, and apt to arise, often in early life, on the basis of a somewhat neurotic organism.

Another malady to which we may judge that men of intellectual eminence are specially liable, since it is so often referred to, is angina pectoris. Heart disease—doubtless because its exact diagnosis is of comparatively recent date—is only referred to eighteen times, but in as many as eight or nine of these cases the disease is either distinctly stated to be, or may reasonably be inferred to be, angina pectoris. None of these cases are purely literary men, but four of them are artists.

There is, however, a pathological condition which occurs so often, in such extreme forms, and in men of such preeminent intellectual ability, that it is impossible not to regard it as having a real association with such ability. I refer to gout. This is by no means a common disease, at all events at the present day. In ordinary English medical practice at the present day, it may safely be said that cases of gout seldom form more than one per cent, of the chronic disorders met with. Yet gout is of all diseases that most commonly mentioned by the national biographers; it is noted as occurring in thirty-eight cases, often in very severe forms. We have, indeed, to bear in mind that gout has been recognized for a very long time, and that it is moreover a disease of good reputation. Yet, even if we assume that it has been noted in every case in which it occurs among our 902 eminent persons (an altogether absurd assumption to make), we should still have to recognize that it occurs in over four per cent. Moreover, the eminence of these gouty subjects is as notable as their number. They include Milton, Harvey, Sydenham, Newton, Gibbon, Fielding, Johnson, Wesley, Landor, W. E. Hamilton and Darwin, while Bacon was of gouty heredity.[1] It would probably be impossible to match the group of gouty men of genius, for varied and preeminent intellectual ability, by any combination of non-gouty individuals on our list. It may be added that these gouty men of genius have frequently been eccentric, often very irascible—'choleric' is the term applied by their contemporaries— and occasionally insane. As a group, they are certainly very unlike the group of eminent consumptives. These latter, with their febrile activities, their restless versatility, their quick sensitiveness to impressions, often appear the very type of genius, but it is a somewhat feminine order of genius. The genius of the gouty group is emphatically masculine, profoundly original; these men show a massive and patient energy which proceeds not only without rest,' but without haste,' until it has dominated its task and solved its problem.

This association of genius and gout cannot be a fortuitous coincidence. The secret of the association probably lies in the special pathological peculiarities of gout. It is liable to occur in robust, well-nourished individuals. It acts in such a way that the poison is sometimes in the blood, and sometimes in the joints. Thus not only is the poison itself probably an irritant and stimulant to the nervous system, but even its fluctuations may be mentally beneficial. 'When it is in the victim's blood his brain becomes abnormally overclouded; when it is in his joints his mind becomes abnormally clear and vigorous. There is thus a well-marked mental periodicity; the man liable to attacks of gout is able to view the world from two entirely different points of view; he has, as it were, two brains at his disposal; in the transition from one state to another he is constantly receiving new inspirations, and constantly forced to gloomy and severe self-criticism. His mind thus attains a greater mental vigor and acuteness than the more equable mind of the non-gouty subject, though the latter is doubtless much more useful for the ordinary purposes of life.

It must not be supposed that in thus stating a connection between gout and genius it is thereby assumed that the latter is in any sense a product of the former. All the uric acid in the world will never suffice of itself to produce genius, and it is easy enough to find severe gout in individuals who are neither rich nor wise, but merely hard-working manual laborers of the most ordinary intelligence. It may well be, however, that, given a highly endowed and robust organism, the gouty poison acts as a real stimulus to intellectual energy and a real aid to intellectual achievement. Gout is thus merely one of perhaps many exciting causes acting on a fundamental predisposition. If the man of genius is all the better for a slight ferment of disease, we must not forget that if he is to accomplish much hard work he also requires a robust constitution.

It may be added that the other diseases of the uric acid group are common among our men of genius. Rheumatism, indeed, is not mentioned a very large number of times, considering its prevalence among the ordinary population. But stone, and closely allied conditions, are mentioned seventeen times (five times in association with gout), and as we may be quite sure that this is a very decided underestimate, we must certainly conclude that the condition has been remarkably common.

One other grave pathological state remains to be noticed in this connection—insanity. To the relationship of insanity with genius great importance has by some writers been attached. That such a relationship is apt to occur cannot be doubted, but it is far from being either so frequent or so significant as is assumed by some writers, who rake together cases of insane men of genius without considering what proportion they bear to sane men of genius, nor what relation their insanity bears to their genius. The interest felt in this question is so general that we may be fairly certain that the national biographers have rarely failed to record the facts bearing on it, although in some cases these facts are dubious and obscure. They may often have passed over gout without mention, but they have seldom failed to mention insanity whenever they knew of its occurrence. It is, therefore, possible to ascertain the prevalence of insanity among the persons on our list with a fair degree of approximation to the truth as it was known to the eminent man's contemporaries. We thus find that twenty-one were certainly insane at some period during the prime of their lives; that thirteen others were probably, but not certainly, insane at some period earlier than old age, and that in eleven further cases mental decay set in before death took place in old age. It may be added that at least nine committed suicide, and that at least fifteen were to a very high degree eccentric, although there is no clear reason to suppose that they were actually insane. It also appears that in seven cases (two fathers and five mothers) one of the parents became insane, and that in eight cases one or more of the children were insane. So that the insanity of the ascendants and descendants, so far as can be seen, was about equal and by no means excessive. If we include every possible case of insanity which may be inferred from the data supplied by the national biographers, and even if we include that decay of the mental faculties which is naturally liable to occur before death in extreme old age, we find that the ascertainable incidence of insanity among our 902 eminent persons is nearly 5 per cent.

It is certainly a high proportion. I do not know what is the number of cases among persons of the educated classes living to a high average age in which it can be said that insanity has occurred at least once during life. It is doubtless lower, but at the same time it can scarcely be so very much lower that we are entitled to say that there is a special and peculiar connection between genius and insanity. The association of genius with insanity is not, I believe, without significance, but in face of the fact that its occurrence is only demonstrable in 5 per cent, cases, and that it is only in 1 per cent, cases demonstrable in the parents puts out of court any theory as to genius being a form of insanity.

While I cannot compare with any precision the liability of these persons of genius to insanity with the similar liability of corresponding normal classes, there is one comparison which it is interesting to make. We may compare the liability of persons of genius to insanity with the similar liability of their wives or husbands. It is noted by the national biographers that in fourteen cases the wives or husband (there is only one case of the latter) became insane. We may be fairly certain that this is a decided underestimate, for while the biographers would hold themselves bound to report the insanity of their subjects, they would not consider themselves equally bound to give similar information concerning the wives, while in other cases it may well be that the record of the fact has been lost. If now, in order to make the comparison reasonably fair, we omit the cases of senile decay, and only admit two-thirds of the doubtful cases of insanity, we find that the proportion of cases of insanity among the persons of genius is 3.3 per cent. Among the conjugal partners, on the other hand (I have not made any allowance for second marriages), it is 2.4. Thus we see that on a roughly fair estimate the difference between the incidence of insanity on British persons of genius and on their wives or husbands is less than one per cent. When we bear in mind that the data on which one of our groups is based are much more complete than those on which the other is based, it is not hazardous to assert that British men of genius have probably not been more liable to insanity than their wives.

At the first glance it might seem that this may be taken to indicate that the liability of genius to insanity is exactly the normal liability. That, however, would be a very rash conclusion. If the wives of men of genius were chosen at random from the general population it would hold good. But there is a well-recognized tendency—observed among all the mentally abnormal classes—for abnormal persons to be sexually attracted to each other. That this tendency prevails largely among persons of eminent intellectual ability many of us may have had occasion to observe. What we see, therefore, is not so much the conjunction of an abnormal and a normal class of persons, but the presence of two abnormal classes.

With regard to the significance of insanity, it must be pointed out that, although there may be an unusual liability to insanity among men of genius, there is no general tendency for genius and insanity, even when occurring in the same individual, to be concomitant. Just as it is rare to find anything truly resembling genius in an asylum, so it is rare to find any true insanity in a man of genius when engaged on his best work. The simulation of it may occur—the divine mania' of the artistic creator, or a very high degree of eccentricity—but not true and definite insanity. There seem to be only two certain (and two or three possible) cases—mostly poets—in which the best work was done during the actual period of insanity. Periods of insanity may alternate with periods of high intellectual achievement, just as gout may alternate with various neurotic conditions, but the two states are not concomitant, and genius cannot be accurately defined as a disease.

It must also be pointed out, in estimating the significance of the relationship between genius and insanity, that the insane group is on the whole not one of commanding intellectual preeminence. It cannot compare in this respect with the gouty group, which is about the same size, and the individuals of greatest eminence are contained in the 'probable and doubtful' sections of the insane group. Among poets and men of letters, of an order below the highest, insanity has been somewhat apt to occur; it has been especially prevalent among antiquarians, but the intellectual eminence of antiquarians is often so dubious that the question of their inclusion in my list has been a frequent source of embarrassment.

If we turn from insanity to other grave nervous diseases, we are struck by their rarity. It is true that many serious nervous diseases have only been accurately distinguished during the past century, and that we could not expect to find much trace of them in the dictionary. But that cannot be said of epilepsy, which has always been recognized, and in a well-developed form cannot easily be ignored. Yet epilepsy or an epileptoid affection is only mentioned twice by the national biographers—once as occurring in early life (Lord Herbert of Cherbury), once in old age (Sir W. E. Hamilton), never during the working life. Although some of the most famous men in the world's history have been epileptics, it cannot be said that the lives of British men of genius favor the belief in any connection between genius and epilepsy, nor, so far as can be seen, do they furnish a single shred of evidence in support of the theory that genius is an epileptoid neurosis.

While, however, grave nervous diseases of definite type seem to be rare rather than common among the eminent persons with whom we are dealing, there is ample evidence to show that nervous symptoms of vaguer and more atypical character are extremely common. The prevalence of eccentricity I have already mentioned. That irritable condition of the nervous system which, in its Protean forms, is now commonly called neurasthenia, is evidently very widespread among them, and probably a large majority have been subject to it. Various definite forms of minor nervous derangement are also common, especially stammering or stuttering; this is noted as occurring in nine cases.[2] In seventeen other cases we are told that the voice was shrill, weak or small. Short-sight, another condition occurring on a basis of hereditary nervous defect, is noted as occurring in an extreme degree thirteen times; and in a certain number of cases the other senses are defective or absent. Convulsive or twitching movements of the face, etc., are unusually frequent, and are noted in nine cases.

A condition to which I am inclined to attribute considerable significance from the present point of view is clumsiness in the use of the hands and awkwardness in walking. A singular degree of clumsiness or awkwardness is noted many times by the national biographers, although they have certainly regarded it merely as a curious trait, and can scarcely have realized its profound significance as an index to the unbalanced make-up of the nervous system. This peculiarity is very frequently noted as occurring in persons who are tall, healthy, robust, full of energy. As boys they are sometimes not attracted to games, and cannot, if they try, succeed in acquiring skill in games; as they grow up all sorts of physical exercise present unusual difficulties to them; they cannot, for instance, learn to ride; even if fond of shooting, they may be unable to hit anything; they cannot write legibly; in walking they totter and shuffle unsteadily; they are always meeting with accidents. Priestley, though great in experiment, was too awkward to handle a tool; Macaulay could not wield a razor or even tie his own neckcloth; Shelley, though lithe and active, was always tumbling upstairs or tripping on smooth lawns. It would be easy to fill many pages with similar examples. It is noted of thirty-four eminent men on our list that they displayed one or more such inaptitudes to acquire properly the muscular coordinations needed for various simple actions of life. In numerous cases this clumsiness was combined with voice defect.

The existence of all these nervous incoordinations and defects is not evidence of disease, but it is yet in harmony with the evidence that we have obtained regarding the diseases most prevalent among British persons of genius. We have seen that the national biographers have revealed the special frequency of consumption, of spasmodic asthma, of angina pectoris, of gout, among persons of high intellectual aptitude. To a large extent these pathological conditions are closely related, and even interchangeable among themselves; they are all closely related to various neurotic conditions. A man of genius may indeed be, as it were, highly charged with nervous energy, but that energy is apt to be ill-balanced, and by no means always equably and harmoniously distributed throughout the organism.

  1. Sydenham, the greatest of English physicians, who suffered from gout for thirty-four years, and wrote an unsurpassed description of its symptoms, said in his treatise, 'De Podagra,' that "it may he some consolation to those sufferers from the disease who, like myself and others, are only modestly endowed with fortune and intellectual gifts, to know that great kings, princes, generals, admirals, philosophers and many more of like eminence have suffered from the same complaint, and ultimately died of it. In a word, gout, unlike any other disease, kills more rich men than poor, more wise than simple." And another ancient (Father Balde) called gout Dominus morborum et morbus dominorum.
  2. Even this means a higher proportion than is found among the general population, and it must be remembered that the real occurrence must be reckoned as at least double that which may be ascertained from the 'Dictionary.' The normal occurrence of stuttering and stammering among adults is much below one per cent., and even among children it is under one per cent.