Saturday, January 22, 2011

Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727)


“I know not what I appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell, whilest the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Born prematurely, and abandoned by his mother at the age of three, Isaac Newton’s childhood was unhappy, and he was described as idle and inattentive at school. But he had a passion for learning, and eventually in 1661 went to Trinity College Cambridge, intending to get a law degree. There he became interested in astrononomy, physics and then maths, entering his thoughts in a notebook entitled Certain Philosophical Questions, in which he also wrote “"Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my best friend is truth".

When Cambridge University was closed because of the plague, he went back home to Lincolnshire, and spent two years reading books on mathematics, returning to become a Fellow in 1667. In 1669 he became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, using his first lectures to demonstrate that white light was actually a mixture of the spectrum of colours. When he donated one of his new reflecting telescopes to the Royal Society, they elected him a Fellow. By 1666 he had developed the theory of universal gravitation: “... all matter attracts all other matter with a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.”

In 1687 Newton finally published The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, usually known as Principia Mathematica, which showed how his laws of motion explained the movements of the planets and other heavenly bodies. Berlinski writes “Nothing like the Principia had ever appeared before the seventeenth century; and in truth, nothing like the Principia has ever appeared afterward. In very large measure, it was the Principia that ignited the furious dark energies that brought mathematical physics into existence and that have sustained its fires for more than three hundred years.” Newton’s universe is mathematical, proceeding like a clock due to universal laws. Sadly, the story of the apple falling on his head is probably a myth.

Newton had a complex personality. He wanted fame, but feared criticism – which meant that often he avoided publishing his results. He was anxious and insecure. Aside from his mother, and the niece to whom he was guardian, he seems to have had no emotional connection with women. He had ferocious arguments with colleagues and rivals such as Hooke and Leibniz, accusing the latter of plagiarising his discovery of “fluxion” (which Leibniz named differential calculus). In Geneva, I was delighted to find, in the wonderful Bodmer Library, Leibntiz’s own copy of the Principia, heavily annotated. Newton’s assistant Whiston said that “ Newton was of the most fearful, cautious and suspicious temper that I ever knew”.

Deeply religious, Newton studied philosophy and theology and astrology as well as science. He devoted years of his life and many thousands of words to esoteric investigations into the philosopher’s stone, transmutation and the elixir of life. John Maynard Keynes described him as “the last of the magicians”, and as someone who “regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty”. Newton was particularly interested in the form and dimensions of Solomon’s Temple, as described in the Bible, and also tried to reconcile classical mythology with the Biblical account. A staunch, if unorthodox, Protestant, he had opposed James II and welcomed the victory of William of Orange. He represented Cambridge University in the Parliament of 1689.

In 1678, Newton had a nervous breakdown, and avoided mixing with other people. In 1693, after the death of his mother, he had a second breakdown, during which he sent wild accusatory letters to his friends John Locke and Samuel Pepys. From then on, he retired from research. In 1696, he moved to London to work for the Royal Mint, becoming Master in 1699, in particular pursuing counterfeiters with his characteristic rage. In 1703 he was elected President of the Royal Society. As he got older, he became fatter and more languid, surrounding himself with bright young men who edited new editions of his work, but speaking very little in public. Probably the greatest of British scientists, he was the first to be knighted, and the first to be buried in Westminster Abbey. But his most famous quotations show his humility: in a letter to Robert Hooke he wrote: “If I have been able to see further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants”:

Isaac Newton is claimed on various different lists of people with disabilities as having epilepsy, a stutter, or some sort of mental illness – depression, bipolar disorder or perhaps Asperger’s Syndrome. He was certainly a solitary individual, with a great capacity for sustained concentration, and a brilliantly intuitive mind. Rather obsessive, he risked blindness by staring at the sun reflected in a looking glass, and at one point inserted a bodkin (needle) into his eye socket, between eyeball and bone. Although there is considerable debate over the nature of his health problems, a contribution to his personality could be mercury poisoning, caused by his chemical research, which can cause hyperactivity, insomnia and irritability, all of which were characteristic of him.


Further reading

James Gleick, Isaac Newton, Pantheon, 2003.

David Berlinski, Newton’s Gift, Free Press, 2002.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Claudius (10 BC - AD 54)

Claudius came from a dysfunctional family, was born with a physical impairment, and grew up somewhat unstable. He overcame his early disadvantages to make a surprisingly successful Emperor, and was arguably one of the most important disabled people in British history.

Tiberius Claudius Drusus was born in Lugdunum (now Lyon), son of a noted Roman military leader and grandson of Mark Anthony. He was the first Roman emperor to be born outside Italy. Sources suggest he was born prematurely: his mother Antonia described him as a “monster of a man, not completed by Dame Nature, but only begun”. His disability has been identified, convincingly to me, as cerebral palsy, although polio and Tourette syndrome have also been suggested. At any rate, his family found him shameful, he was hidden from popular view for much of his youth, and had a guardian even after attaining manhood. In The Problem of Claudius, a dissertation which I first encountered when I was writing my own thesis, Thomas De Coursey Ruth wrote that

“Misunderstood, treated by his own family with cruelty and contempt, constantly made conscious of his imperfections, unable because of his physical weakness and disabilities to assert himself, left a great part of the time to the care of freedmen, or servants, he must have acquired in childhood a feeling of inferiority and of inability to adapt himself to his proper environment.” (1916, 136).

Claudius is described as having problems walking and was therefore carried everywhere in a sedan chair; he had tremor of the hands and head and dribbled; and he had a speech impediment. Initially despising him, his forebear Emperor Augustus later revised his opinion when he heard him giving a formal oration, writing in a letter: “for how anyone who speaks so confusedly in conversation can speak so clearly what he has to say when he declaims I do not see”. He also noted “in matters of importance, when his mind does not get off the subject, the really fine quality of his intellect is apparent”.

Barred from a public career under the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, Claudius retired to a private life of scholarship and over indulgence. A dry and pedantic writer, he produced a number of historical works, and was the last man known to have been able to read Etruscan.

Claudius was the only male member of the royal family to survive the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula, who made him the butt of cruel jokes. Later, Claudius explained that he had pretended to be stupid in order to avoid being assassinated as a potential political rival. After the cruel, probably insane, Caligula was killed by his bodyguard, Claudius was made emperor by the Army, and from henceforth all Roman emperors depended on the army for their power. He took the name Caesar, which now became an official title rather than a surname (Tsar, Kaiser and probably Shah all being later derivations).

But this violent start did not stop Claudius having many successes as emperor. He was an able administrator, reforming the senate and the courts, and building roads, aqueducts and canals, as well as the port of Ostia. He issued up to 20 edicts a day, some of which are evidence of his whimsical and sometimes undignified sense of humour, for example the one on how to cure snake bites and another advocating public flatulence to promote good health. He also wrote a treatise on dice playing.

Liable to make jokes at inappropriate moments, Roman sources claim that Claudius lacked tact and dignity and was too fond of slang. In this, he seems to anticipate Silvio Berlusconi or perhaps Nicholas Sarkozy. Suetonius notes that “in hearing and deciding cases Claudius showed strange inconsistency of temper, for he was now careful and shrewd, sometimes inconsiderate and hasty, and occasionally silly and like a crazy man.” From contemporary accounts, it sounds as if he tended to get over excited, and could be rather na├»ve in his public pronouncements.

According to the inscription on his triumphal arch, Claudius “was the first to bring barbarian peoples from across the Ocean under the sway of the Roman people”, in other words he led the Roman conquest of Britain in AD43, seizing the capital, Colchester, with the aid of the first elephants to be seen in England.

Claudius was less successful in his private life. Unusual among Roman emperors in being resolutely heterosexual, he was married four times. He was unlucky enough to chose as his third wife the notoriously unfaithful Messalina, and to follow her by marrying his niece Agrippina, who is said to have poisoned him. Timid and trusting, he was vulnerable to the lures of manipulative women as well as to the freedmen who made up his inner circle. Both groups exploited his fears of assassination to get rid of people they did not like.

While Claudius was not vicious like Tiberius or Nero, whom he disastrously chose to succeed him, he did take a morbid delight in witnessing suffering, for example torture, executions and in particular the gladiatorial games. During his reign, 35 senators and 300 knights were executed, although admittedly many of them had conspired against him.

However, Claudius was also generous, loyal and considerate to his friends, and open to people of all classes. Caratacus, the leader of the British resistance to the Romans, was brought to Rome in chains in 51 AD and paraded through the streets. Giving a dignified speech, Caratacus told Claudius that if he was to pardon him, it would be an everlasting memorial to his clemency: which he did, and it was.

To conclude, I find Claudius a complex and interesting character, and not just because he was so successfully ventriloquized by Robert Graves. He was one of the most powerful disabled people in history. His cruelty was typical of ancient Rome, and at least he was not as mad or bad as most other leaders of the time. Intelligent, absent minded and extremely fond of good food and drink, he would probably have fitted in well at an Oxbridge High Table, where he would no doubt have bored his companions with his unsuccessful plan to add three new letters to the Roman alphabet.

Further reading

Robert Graves, I Claudius, Penguin, 1941.

Thomas De Coursey Ruth, The Problem of Claudius: some aspects of a character study, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1916

Monday, January 3, 2011

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

“We want to rouse the interest of the public: for behind the Cabinet in England always stands the House of Commons & behind the House of Commons always stands the British public. And these are they we want to interest: and these can only be interested by narratives of real lives.”


Although Florence Nightingale is a well-known historical figure, the details of her life are probably familiar to very few. Yet she appears to me not just as one of the most impressive disabled people of the Victorian era, but as one of the most extraordinary women of all time. Known mainly as a benevolent nurse, she deserves recognition as a brilliant health reformer and thinker on public health.

Born in 1820 to a prosperous Derbyshire family, before she could begin the pioneering work to which she believed God had called her, she had first to fight against the prevailing cultural norm that a respectable lady should not have a public career. A woman of her class was expected to devote herself to her family, to frivolous occupations, and to some decorous do-gooding in her local neighbourhood. In particular, nursing was seen as totally unsuitable for a lady, because nurses were considered feckless loose women, who were prone to alcoholism. Florence Nightingale's conflict with her family, in particular with her demanding older sister Parthenope, overshadowed the first half of her life. Moreover, despite being courted by several eligible men - among them Richard Monckton Milnes and Benjamin Jowett, who went on to be Master of Balliol College, Oxford, Nightingale made the active to choice to remain free and single, rather than becoming a submissive wife and mother. Around 1850, she wrote a polemical autobiographical essay about the predicament of middle class Victorian women, Cassandra. When it was finally published in 1928, it was hailed as a proto-feminist classic and inspired both Virginia Woolf and Vera Brittain.

By 1854, having broken free of bourgeois expectations about family loyalty, and with the benefit of a period of training and studying in European hospitals such as Kaiserswerth in Germany, Florence Nightingale was ready to make her contribution to history. The sentimental myth of "The Lady with the Lamp" highlights her work as a nurse in the Crimean war of 1853-1856. Having fought for recognition of the potential benefits of trained female nurses, in 1854 she led a team of forty nurses to care for the injured soldiers in the hospital at Scutari, near Istanbul.

Yet despite the image, Florence Nightingale's talents were to find greatest expression as an administrator, statistician and health reformer, rather than as a carer herself. On her return from the Crimea, shocked by the disastrous logistical inefficiencies and health tragedies she had witnessed, she campaigned tirelessly to improve the medical services available to the British army. She then broadened her interest to other areas of health and social improvement. A convert to the importance of good sanitation, hygiene and ventilation, she first advocated for the improved design of hospitals. Taking advantage of the Nightingale Fund, which had been raised by private subscription after she became an iconic public figure in Britain after her Crimean service, she planned and promoted a training school for nurses at St Thomas' Hospital. Her short book Notes on Nursing outlined her philosophy of nursing and was hugely influential. Later, she turned her attention to the appalling situation of destitute people in British workhouse infirmaries, campaigning for trained nurses to be available for their care. After the great Indian famine of 1877, she became very concerned with promoting health and improving irrigation in the subcontinent, writing in one influential article: "We do not care for the people of India. This is a heavy indictment: but how else account for the facts about to be given? Do we even care enough to know about their daily lives of lingering deaths from causes which we could so well remove?"

As evidenced by her diverse interests and achievements, Florence Nightingale was a highly driven individual. On 7 February 1837, she had received what she believed was a personal calling from God. Her family were Unitarians, but early in life she had rejected organized religion and developed her own eclectic and sophisticated theological approach, combining science and reason with faith. She has been compared to mystics such as Joan of Arc, in the way that she combined contemplation with action. For her, religion was about contributing to the realization of God's law through work.

Alongside her passion, Nightingale enjoyed several other advantages. She had a private income, which enabled her to work independently; her extraordinary public profile allowed her to use the threat of popular opinion to promote her causes; she worked closely with politicians such as Sidney Herbert and with researchers such as John Sutherland and William Farr; and she used her formidable intellect to gather evidence and advocate for reform. In particular, her talent for mathematics saw her at the forefront of the new science of statistics.

Why does Nightingale deserve to be included in a roll-call of distinguished disabled people? Because she has been described as "history's most famous invalid". While in the Crimea, she experienced an acute episode of fever. After her return to England, a gaunt and weary figure, she had recurrent bouts of illness during her lifetime, starting with a collapse in autumn 1857. From 1861, she became bed-bound, for six years. At several points she was believed to be close to death. As a result, she became reclusive, conducting all her research and policy work from her bedroom at the Burlington Hotel, or later from her home at 35, South Street, London. She had always shunned publicity, now she avoided most human contact, relying on endless correspondence to pursue her work: 14,000 of her letters survive. She always worked behind the scenes, and her religious faith led her to shun recognition for her achievements. Not only her physical appearance, but also her personality changed, as she exploited the friends, relatives and allies who supported her work of health reform and endlessly reproached them for their supposed failures and betrayals. She has been accused of malingering, using her illness for her own obsessive ends, and of being a neurotic.

However, recent analysis provides a physical explanation for Nightingale's behaviour (Young, 1995). The fever she contracted in the Crimea has been identified as chronic brucellosis, a disease resulting from a bacterial infection. In the absence of appropriate treatment with antibiotics the condition can persist for years. The symptoms include depression, insomnia, rheumatism, neuralgia and spondylitis, "one of the most incapacitating and painful maladies that can affect man". Poor health combined with a punishing schedule of public health activities meant that frequently Nightingale's friends and allies feared that she was likely to kill herself through overwork. Thankfully, after the age of 60, Nightingale's depression lifted and her personality resumed its previous benevolence, and she was able again to take walks and enjoy visits. She lived on quietly until the age of ninety, although for the last five years of her life she was unaware of her surroundings.

From the start, coverage of Florence Nightingale has veered between the two extremes of "sentimental angel" or "dictatorial reformer". Mark Bostridge's excellent biography (2008) gives a rich and balanced picture of a highly complex and passionate woman, who was intellectually the equal of any man of her time, and who made a major contribution to public health, despite her own debilitating chronic illness.


Further reading

Bostridge M, Florence Nightingale, Penguin, London, 2008.

Young DAB, Florence Nightingale's fever, British Medical Journal 1995, 311: 1697

Outing disabled celebrities: a cautionary note

I love lists. They're just so satisfying. And I'm not alone. In fact, the whole internet is a list-lovers paradise.

I've also noticed an interesting disability list phenomenon, which could be called "Outing Disabled Celebrities". I suspect the idea was borrowed from the gay community. If your identity is ignored at best, stigmatised at worst, then compiling a list of famous and successful people who share your experience can be heartening, even inspirational.

According to Google, there are at least a million lists of famous gay people on the internet, as well as lists of famous Black people, famous vegetarians, famous chess players, famous West Virginians, famous people who were adopted, and hundreds of others. In fairness, there should also be a list of famous dwarfs, but the only one I found has just four members. Four?! That's ridiculous. Even Snow White did better than that.

More enterprising impairment communities have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the game. For example, there are lists of famous people with Asperger's, including Woody Allen, Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, Bob Dylan, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain and Vincent Van Gogh. There are lists of famous people with Attention Deficit Disorder, including Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Mozart and Winston Churchill. And of course, there are lists of famous people with depression and mood disorders containing names too numerous to mention.

Now, I can see the benefits of making these sorts of lists to challenge prejudice and negative stereotypes, but the popularity of 'claim a celebrity' does raise a few questions.

For example, just how accurate are these retrospective diagnoses? I'm not the world's greatest scholar, but some of these identifications are pretty dubious. Albert Einstein, for example, had a miserable childhood, started talking late, and was a bit of a nerd. Apparently, these are all potential clues to his neurodiversity, as is the fact that he never learned to drive a car. Yet he also married twice, had many friends, and possessed a good sense of humour. Or take Thomas Jefferson. Here, the evidence seems to consist of the facts that he preferred old clothes, disliked public speaking, felt conflicted about slavery, and kept exceptionally detailed financial records. Well, none of this was particularly unusual at the time, and it hardly adds up to a definitive diagnosis, does it?

Alert readers may have noticed that the same names often crop up on different lists. It's common knowledge that Winston Churchill suffered from depression, which he called his "black dog", but he also gets claimed by the Aspies. Poor old Beethoven and Einstein also seem to have had multiple impairments. And as for Mozart, he's been variously diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder and Asperger's. Perhaps there should be some sort of 'disabled celebrity list summit meeting", which could work to achieve a consensus on exactly which problems afflicted what famous historical figure. Can you imagine the negotiations? "I'll trade you Isaac Newton for Alexander Graham Bell, and I'll throw in a few composers, but you're not having Mark Twain."

Of course, it's only ever the desirable disabled people who get on these lists. Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin might be diagnosed as having manic depression, on the basis of their raging tempers, manic highs, grandiose delusions, paranoia, reckless behaviour, gloomy depression and contemptuous disregard for others. But they don't tend to feature amongst the celebrity numbers.

The whole business of outing celebrities is an attempt to see the positive aspects of conditions that the prejudices of mainstream convention regard as unmitigatingly awful. But there is a risk of going to the other extreme, and glossing over the distressing difficulties of having a mental illness or cognitive impairment. There's also the danger of raising expectations unfairly. High achievers are rare in any field of life. Couldn’t listing dozens of exceptional people with manic depression or Asperger's may even make ordinary people - who have the same conditions but not the same talent - feel worse rather than better? For example, only about 10% of autistic people have savant skills. How many parents of autistic children are doubly disappointed that their child has the severe impairment, but not the compensatory abilities they have seen on the silver screen?

The celebrity disability list seems to be a product of an era in which there are hundreds of different diagnoses, many of them only recently discovered (or maybe 'invented' is a better word). While humans come in all sorts of different varieties and personality types, society is rather intolerant of those who don't fit a narrow norm.

Most traits can be found in the average person. For example, it's common to feel slightly depressed or manic from time to time. My ex-wife was convinced that I'm on the autistic spectrum, because I like to twiddle my fingers in front of my face, and I get upset if plans are changed - not to mention all this list-making. I disagree, because I think the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder fit me much better.

In fact we're both wrong, because there's nothing clinically wrong with me at all. I may occasionally manifest some of the same traits as someone with Asperger's or ADHD, but then so do many people. That's why it's so easy to diagnose long-dead historical figures with different cognitive impairments, and why so many children are being prescribed Ritalin. Almost everyone has their eccentricities, or sometimes feels shy in social gatherings, but that's not the same as autism. Not every nerd is an Aspie.

In a world where people feel uncertain about their identity, many folks jump onto diagnostic bandwagons, wanting to have a label - or a badge - to explain to themselves and to others why they feel different. It makes people feel secure to be officially distinctive and to have a wider community to belong to, and the internet makes it easy. When the original version of this article was published, there were dozens of outraged responses – more than for most of my Ouch contributions – mainly from neurodiverse people furious that I was challenging their role models, and pointing out that conditions like Asperger’s, ADHD and Tourette’s overlap, so it should be no surprise that the same name appears on different lists. My mistake, admittedly, only I don't think it makes any difference to my overall argument.

While I understand the importance of role models - and it's one of the main justifications for this blog - I think labelling, listing and separating can be a dangerous strategy, if taken too far. Rather than concentrating on what divides us, surely we should celebrate what we have in common?Remember Thomas Jefferson not for his eccentricities, but for the powerful (if dated) words which he helped draft: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal".

On y va!

On this blog, I will be sharing short biographies of important people with disabilities from world history. I want to reclaim famous individuals who are not normally thought of as disabled. I want to highlight obscure people with disabilities who have never received the attention they deserve. In this way, I want to celebrate the achievements of people with disabilities as well as the obstacles they have overcome. Disability is part of our history as well as part of our present. Impairment is a ubiquitous dimension of human diversity. It is part of what makes us human. I would rather not see impairment as a tragedy, although it sometimes is, and I do not think it is enough to see disability as oppression, though it often is. For me, the key word is “predicament”. Impairment and disability are everyday features of human life which challenge us, and with which we have to come to terms, in whatever way we can. Along the way, we should try to build a world which is as accommodating and supportive of difference, and of our common humanity, as we possibly can.

I recognise that the endeavour of disabled biography is not straightforward. Retrospective diagnosis is dangerous. Almost all the individuals I plan to describe either never thought of themselves as disabled, or else preferred not to. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is only the most famous of those disabled people who did not like to be represented as such. As a political strategy, disability “outing” could be seen as questionable as the parallel “naming and claiming” within the gay and lesbian community. As one of my first posts, I will publish an old article from Ouch, the BBC disability website, which expressed my scepticism about the whole process. Age may have mellowed my attitudes, but it has not dispelled all my doubts.

Why should I contribute to the overloaded blogosphere at all? Between 2005 and 2010, I wrote a monthly column on Ouch, as well as occasional articles in the UK print media. Now that I work in Switzerland at the World Health Organization, I have given up most of my media work, partly because of pressure of work, partly because it’s hard to contribute to UK debates when you live abroad, and partly because writing polemical articles potentially conflicts with the neutrality demanded of an international civil servant. While writing 800 words per month on a disability theme sometimes felt like a pressure – especially when I began to run out of subjects after the first few years – I miss having a platform to express my views, and a space to do something more creative than my regular work allows. I read a lot of biographies, and the obituary is the first page I turn to when The Economist arrives each week. So why not give it a try?

I hope this blog will restore my voice, by allowing me to write for public consumption, and to exercise my imagination. But I hope that it will also make a minor contribution to changing attitudes about disability, by demonstrating the achievements of disabled men and women in the past. I hope that school students who are given an assignment to research disability in history might come across this blog, and find it useful. I hope that it settles the odd pub argument, demolishes a myth or two, and provides evidence to substantiate claims. And in particular, my aim is to offer more detail than the various internet lists of disabled celebrities can provide. It is all very well to know that Antonio Gramsci was disabled, but it would be helpful to know what his impairment was, how it affected his life, and what, if anything, his experience can tell us today.

Although I live some distance from a good English-language library, with these brief lives I want to do more than offer a precis drawn from the World Wide Web or Wikipedia. I do not have the time or the historical expertise to go to primary sources, in almost all cases. But wherever I can, I want to draw on a recent biography, or reputable secondary accounts. A caution: each life will reflect my interests, prejudices and interpretations, rather than being either comprehensive or balanced. On a technical note: I will tag each entry, so that a search will reveal all the women, or all the people with visual impairment, or all the writers, or all the Americans, and so on. I will not include any living people with disabilities. I do not think it is necessary to include references in a blog like this, although I will cite my major sources in the suggestions for further reading, and I can provide evidence to substantiate claims to readers who want to go further. I will try and add at least one entry per month. Please credit the source if you wish to reproduce any of the material published here. Feedback is welcome, particularly suggestions for subjects, additions to the stories, corrections where errors have crept in, or personal responses to what is written here. Happy reading.

PS: if you’re interested about the title: it’s a quotation from American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), recently claimed as having epilepsy.