February 12, 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Many events are planned to honor him and bring attention to new historical research about his life. Some of this new research has focused on the former President’s health and DNA.
The speculation centers around Mr. Lincoln’s remarkable physique. He was an extraordinarily tall man for the early 19th century, measuring 6 feet 4 inches. His arms, hands, legs, and feet also seemed to be elongated. In addition, he was very thin throughout his life. Historical evidence suggests that he weighed about 170 pounds. In the 1960s, medical specialists speculated that he had Marfan syndrome. This hereditary disorder usually affects the growth of the lungs, eyes, bones, and most importantly, the heart. However, Lincoln was not known to have problems with his heart, or in any of the other areas.
Another speculation is that Mr. Lincoln had spinocerebellar ataxia type 5, which has been discovered in his descendants. This hereditary disorder affects coordination and could explain historical accounts of the former President’s clumsy gait-like walk.
Recently, cardiologist John G. Sotos posed a new theory that Lincoln’s unusual build was caused by multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2- a genetic disorder that causes the growth of tumors and usually affects the thyroid. In many cases, the tumors are cancerous. Sotos speculates that Lincoln may have been dying of cancer when he was assassinated in April 1865. (Lincoln was 56 years old when John Wilkes Booth shot him in the back of the head at close range, damaging vital brain tissue and causing a severe hemorrhage.)
The research into Lincoln’s health gets complicated here because these diseases can be diagnosed through simple DNA tests. The plethora of bloodied clothing, skull fragments, and pieces of hair that have been saved from his assassination are all possible sources for DNA that can be tested. However, the testing may cause part of the artifact to be destroyed, any many curators and artifact owners are not willing to take that risk.
Beyond the destruction of Lincoln artifacts, there is the ethical question about whether researchers have the right to analyze the former President’s DNA and make the findings public. Would it set a precedent that could possibly erode the privacy of other historical figures? Is it worth the risk…? When Lincoln’s body was moved to a more secure burial site over 100 years ago, his last living son requested that his father’s body be left in peace. Since then, curators and researchers have cited this request as evidence of the Lincoln family’s wishes.
On the other side, historians and those who suffer from these diseases would like to have conclusive answers. Almost every other aspect of this famous President’s life has been researched extensively. If the DNA evidence proves Lincoln did have a genetic defect, others with disabilities could site his success as encouragement.
It’s a tricky question…
You can learn about the health of other U.S. Presidents in our virtual exhibit “When the President is the Patient” which is posted below.