Abraham Lincoln and Marfan Syndrome

Would He Be Diagnosed With it Today?

Abraham Lincoln, Three-Quarter Length Portrait, Seated, Facing Right; Hair Parted On Lincoln's Right Side. 1864 Feb. 9
Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

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. And the fascination continues: the U.S. National Museum of Health and Medicine held a Symposium on President Lincoln's Health as recently as 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 that stated President Abraham Lincoln most likely had Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder. The diagnosis was based on physical observations of Lincoln, including the facts 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?

About 1 in 5,000 people have Marfan syndrome, an inherited disorder of connective tissue, although about one-quarter of all cases occur without any family history of the disease.

It affects both men and women of all ethnic backgrounds. 

Because Marfan syndrome affects connective tissue anywhere it exists in the body, the disease can affect many different parts of the body. Most often, signs of the disorder are seen in the heart, blood vessels, bones, joints, and eyes. Marfan disease can be life-threatening when it affects certain parts of the body such as the aorta and can cause severe damage to the lungs, skin and nervous system.

 

Signs of Marfan Syndrome

Like some of the features of Abraham Lincoln, certain signs raise a suspicion for Marfan syndrome. These include:

  • Long arms, legs, and fingers
  • Tall and thin body type
  • Curved spine
  • Chest sinks in or sticks out
  • Flexible joints
  • Flat feet
  • Crowded teeth
  • Stretch marks on the skin that are not related to weight gain or loss

In addition, there might be signs and symptoms that are not as easy to link to the disease, such as lung collapse and eye problems such as severe nearsightedness, a dislocated lens, a detached retina, early glaucoma, and early cataracts.

Prognosis

There is no cure for Marfan syndrome, but with treatment, those with the disease can live a normal life with normal life expectancy. Managing the disease may include taking medication or limiting physical activity. Close management by a physician who specializes in the disorder will ensure that symptoms are not worsening. In some cases, surgery may be needed. 

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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