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MARY TODD LINCOLN. A PERNICIOUS ANEMIA SUFFERER?

A RECENT ARTICLE CLAIMS THAT PERNICIOUS ANEMIA, NOT BIPOLAR DISEASE, WAS THE CAUSE OF HER PSYCHIATRIC SYMPTOMS.

Mary_Todd_Lincoln_EBMary Todd Lincoln, the wife of America’s sixteenth president, was very familiar with unhappiness during the last decades of her life. Her desire for an upscale lifestyle had exceeded her material resources for most of her marriage. Therefore, upon becoming first lady, and as a result, acquiring the means and opportunity to indulge her repressed desires, she spent extravagantly on personal clothing and furnishings for her new home, the White House.

For this and other reasons, the press and pockets of the public harassed and ridiculed Mrs. Lincoln. Meanwhile, her beloved husband Abraham was buffeted by the ongoing Civil War, which probably limited his ability to console and comfort his beleaguered spouse. In addition, Willie Lincoln, the favorite of their four sons died from typhoid fever midway during the Lincoln presidency. Mary’s sense of loss was both persistent and profound. She was deeply depressed and attempted to reunite with Willie through a series of séances conducted both in the White House and in the Lincolns’ summer residence in the District of Columbia.

Of course, the greatest blow to her  mental well being was her first person witness to the assassination and death of President Lincoln. Thereafter Mary Lincoln suffered from delusions, hallucinations and paranoia. Several medical experts diagnosed her mental condition as bipolar disease. (1)

However, a recent article in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, by Dr. John G. Sotos, theorized that this first lady suffered from pernicious anemia. Pernicious anemia is a lack of red blood cells, due to a lack of vitamin B 12. Its symptoms are tiredness, shortness of breath, pallor of the skin, loss of balance, paresthesias of the hands and feet, headaches, and mental confusion.

Sotos determined that Mary Lincoln had all of these symptoms and concluded that pernicious anemia was their cause. He buttressed his thesis with the claim that both of Mary’s consanguineous parents both derived from a region of Scotland having a high incidence of pernicious anemia. (2)

Like her controversial successors, Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, First lady Mary Todd Lincoln continues to provide great professional enjoyment to both medical writers and historians.

1. Ludwig M. Deppisch, The Health of the First Ladies (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. Inc. Publishers, 2015) 65-70.
2. John G. Sotos, What an Affliction: Mary Todd Lincoln’s Fatal Pernicious Anemia,
Prospectives in Biology and Medicine, 58 (4) 419-443, 2015.

First Ladies of America
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