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President Lincoln and Marfan Syndrome

Would he be diagnosed with it today?

By

Updated August 04, 2009

President Abraham Lincoln presenter Jim Rubin

President Abraham Lincoln presenter Jim Rubin of Prosperity, West Virginia

Photo © Getty Images News
President Abraham Lincoln's health has been a topic of debate among scholars and physicians. In addition to known illnesses such as smallpox and constipation, at times it has been argued that he also suffered from depression and cancer. The fascination continues: the U.S. National Museum of Health and Medicine held a Symposium on President Lincoln's Health on April 18-19, 2009.

One of the more enduring theories about President Lincoln's health arose in the early 1960s. A physician published a paper in 1964 in the Journal of the American Medical Association which stated that President Abraham Lincoln had Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder. The diagnosis was based on physical observations of Lincoln:

  • the fact that he was much taller than most men of his day
  • had long limbs
  • had an abnormally-shaped chest (sunken in)
  • had loose (lax) joints (based on written descriptions)
Since then, other physicians have disputed a diagnosis of Marfan syndrome for Lincoln. Some have argued that President Lincoln's hands did not have long, thin fingers, a common finding in people with the syndrome.

At a scientific workshop held in October 2001 in Cairo, Egypt, the scientists gathered there felt that there was not enough scientific evidence available to definitely diagnose President Lincoln with the disorder.

What is Marfan syndrome?

Marfan syndrome is an inherited disorder of connective tissue, although about one-quarter of all cases occur without any family history of the syndrome. It affects both men and women of all ethnic background. About 1 in 5,000 people have Marfan syndrome.

Sources:

Farag, Talaat I. "The Maladies of Celebrities." The Ambassadors Online Magazine 5(Jan 2002) Web.22 Jul 2009.

"Abraham Lincoln’s Health." The Lincoln Institute Presents: Abraham Lincoln's Classroom. The Lincoln Institute. 24 Jul 2009

"About Marfan Syndrome." National Marfan Foundation. 22 Jul 2009

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