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Famous People with Epilepsy

There have always been people with epilepsy. Since the dawn of time, epilepsy has affected millions of people, from beggars to kings. It is one of the oldest conditions of the human race.

The earliest references to epilepsy date back to the fifth millennium B.C. in Mesopotamia, where epileptic auras, generalized convulsions and other aspects of what these ancient people called "the falling sickness" were recorded with remarkably accurate descriptions.

Some ancient people thought epileptic seizures were caused by evil spirits or demons that had invaded a person's body. Priests attempted to cure people with epilepsy by driving the demons out of them with magic and prayers. This superstition was challenged by ancient physicians like Atreya of India and later Hippocrates of Greece, both of whom recognized a seizure as a dysfunction of the brain and not a supernatural event.

Nevertheless, the superstitious interpretation of epilepsy persisted for centuries, and still exists in some parts of the world. Attitudes of past societies toward epilepsy have left a legacy of stigma and damaging misconceptions which still persist today. Many people with epilepsy continue to face fear, prejudice and discrimination in their everyday lives.

On the other hand, epileptic seizures have a power and symbolism which, historically, have suggested a relationship with creativity or unusual leadership abilities. Scholars have long been fascinated by evidence that prominent religious leaders, political leaders, philosophers, and many who achieved greatness in the arts and sciences suffered from epilepsy.

Aristotle was apparently the first to connect epilepsy and genius. His catalogue of "great epileptics" (which included Socrates) was added to during the Renaissance. Only people from Western culture were included, however. So strong was this tradition that even in the nineteenth century, when new names of "great epileptics" were added, they were rarely chosen from among people in other parts of the world. Working from this biased historical legacy, the famous people with epilepsy that we know about are primarily white males.

We know that epilepsy involves temporary bursts of excessive electrical activity in different locations in the brain, locations which house our bodily sensations and functions, as well as our memories and emotions. Psychiatrist Dr. David Bear states that the abnormal brain activity found in temporal lobe epilepsy can play a role in creative thinking and the making of art by uniting sensitivity, insight and sustained, critical attention.

According to Dr. Bear: "A temporal lobe focus in the superior individual may spark an extraordinary search for that entity we alternately call truth or beauty."

Nowadays, modern medicine can diagnose Epilepsy far more accurately than in past centuries. However, many of the world's most famous people are historically recorded as having had seizures. People with epilepsy have excelled in every area. What follows is a list of people who are responsible for changing civilization as we know it, all of whom are strongly suspected or known to have had epilepsy. It's an impressive group.

Charles Dickens  Tony Greig (Cricket) 
Dante  Terry Marsh (Boxer) 
Sir Walter Scott  Greg Walker (Baseball) 
Lord Byron  Wally Lewis (Rugby) 
Alfred, Lord Tennyson  Paul Wade (Aussie Football) 
Moliere  Allen Faneca (NFL) 
Lewis Carroll  Chandra Gunn (Women's Hockey)
Fyodor Dostoevsky  Bobby Jones (Basketball) 
Leo Tolstoy  Garry Howatt (NHL) 
Gustave Flaubert  Derek Morris (NHL) 
Agatha Christie   
Edgar Allen Poe  Alexander the Great 
  Julius Caesar 
Saint Paul  King Louis XIII (France)
Joan of Arc  King Charles V (Spain) 
Martin Luther  Napolean Bonaparte 
Pope Pius IX  Peter the Great 
  Vladimir Lenin 
PHILOSOPHERS:  Theodore Roosevelt (U.S. President) 
Socrates  James Madison (U.S.) President 
Pythagoras PAINTERS: 
  Leonardo Da Vinci 
COMPOSERS:  Vincent Van Gogh 
Paganini  Michelangelo 
Beethoven  ACTORS: 
Handel  Michael Wilding 
George Gershwin  Margaux Hemingway 
Schumann  Richard Burton 
  Danny Glover 
SCIENTISTS:  Bud Abbott 
Alfred Nobel  Ward Bond 
Sir Isaac Newton   
Thomas Edison   
Neil Young   
Emilie Dionne (of the Dionne Quintuplets)   

**The Edmonton Epilepsy Association has assembled this information from both print sources and online sources. If there are any discrepancies in the above information, please contact us so we may amend it.

Copyright 2010 Edmonton Epilepsy Association. All Rights Reserved.