Last week (or the week before?), one of the contributors at C18-L drew my attention to a new piece of medical history research in which I have a certain personal interest: Did all those famous people really have epilepsy?
I’m an epileptic. I haven’t had a fit for a very long time, but I continue to take the medication to make sure that state of affairs continues. I was apparently relatively unusual in that it began well after childhood, and I only ever had a handful of fits, in the space of a few months, before we got the medication right (thankfully). I can’t help suspecting that, unless future historians have my medical records, they might well find it quite hard to determine whether I ‘really’ had epilepsy either. (But it certainly caused more than enough disruption to my life at the time.)
Diagnosing illnesses of people long dead is frequently difficult and controversial (George III: was it really porphyria? The Black Death: was it really bubonic plague? Nearly forgot: What killed Napoleon?). The external symptoms of epilepsy are pretty varied and often capable of confusion with other conditions; it’s hard to diagnose for certain without scanning technology (as the article points out). Quite rightly, overly confident diagnoses of historical afflictions founded on inadequate evidence can be criticised. And I still don’t think that it’s an acceptable methodology to use references to syphilis in a certain well-known writer’s work to suggest that he suffered from that disease, either.
But it works the other way round too: surely, what this researcher should be saying – particularly of the pre-modern personalities he studied, and more especially since this study seems to have been based purely on secondary sources – is that he doesn’t have the evidence to prove that those people were epileptics, and that we should be cautious in making that diagnosis, rather than that they were all, definitively, not-epileptics. Clearly, researchers with medical expertise have valuable knowledge to bring to the history of medicine. But I do often find myself wishing that they’d take a few lessons on the basics of historical research from us historians.