20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness

Tim Flight - October 7, 2018

Mental health has been something of an enigma for most of human history. Before the age of science, people suffering from mental health problems utterly flummoxed the doctors of the day. Generally speaking, such misfortune was seen as the work of the devil or a sign of the patient’s sinful nature. Schizophrenia, and even epilepsy, for example, were seen as demonic possession, and ‘treated’ by exorcists. But whilst it would be cruel and anachronistic to castigate a period of human history without our knowledge of psychology or medicine, we should not forget how the patients suffered in their day.

Yet even when some took a scientific approach, such as Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy, the prescribed treatment for such ailments as ‘melancholy’ (depression) were, sadly, completely incorrect. Burton, to take but one example, like most Renaissance scholars saw the human body as comprised of four humors (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile), the proportions of which determined someone’s personality. Treatment of psychological issues such as melancholy could thus be affected by a change in diet, the imbibing of potions, and bloodletting with leeches. Sadly, few of these remedies actually worked, and no one felt any better.

Today, we have a better understanding of mental illness. Admitting to suffering from problems such as depression is encouraged, and treatment is far more sophisticated. Disturbingly, though, there remains a lingering sentiment that poor mental health equates to some sort of weakness or inferiority. Medical professionals (who, frankly, know best) stress that mental illness is no different from physical maladies. More to the point, even in the dark days of all mental illness being dismissed as madness, some of the greatest figures in history achieved great things whilst fighting untreated or undiagnosed issues. Here are the twenty best examples.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
Ottavio Leoni’s portrait of Caravaggio, Rome, 1621. Wikimedia Commons

1. Caravaggio, one of history’s greatest artists, is suspected of being a manic depressive

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was amongst the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance. His revolutionary work transformed the world of art, inspiring legions of imitators in his own lifetime and influencing later movements such as Baroque and 19th-century Realism. His work was a direct, uncomfortable blow to the emotions, depicting Biblical scenes with horrific realism and pathos. Unfortunately, Caravaggio had a fiery temper, and his habit of involving himself in street brawls led to the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni in 1605, which saw him exiled from Rome until his own possible murder in 1610, revenge for Tomassoni or another offense.

The eminent art critic, Andrew Graham-Dixon, who himself suffers from depression, has convincingly argued that Caravaggio had bipolar disorder. His frequent brawls and arguments with everyone from artistic rivals to waiters punctuated periods of cheerful drinking and celebration, suggesting violent mood swings, and his tremendous ego is also symptomatic of the disorder. Caravaggio’s incorporation of his own self-portrait into several, violent works – including the severed heads of Medusa and John the Baptist – also suggests that his rage was turned upon himself. Even Caravaggio’s aesthetic style – tenebrism, the emphatic juxtaposition of light and dark – may be an expression of bipolar disorder.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, c.1846-47. Wikimedia Commons

2. Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest Presidents in the history of the United States, and battled depression for most of his life

Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) is remembered as the President who oversaw the North’s victory over the Confederacy in the American Civil War. He demonstrated strong and determined leadership in one of America’s darkest hours, and at the time of his untimely assassination was working on ways to help the country recover from internal strife. Though his precise sentiments about racial equality are now debated, Lincoln was also responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in North America. Allied to his economic policies, all this makes Lincoln a popular choice for the greatest ever President of the United States.

A common and unhelpful myth about mental health is that one’s objective success or wealth should preclude issues such as depression. Lincoln is a case in point to prove that mental health problems arise regardless of circumstances. Arriving on stage at the Republican Convention of 1860 to a standing ovation, one onlooker described Lincoln as ‘one of the most diffident and worst plagued men I ever saw’. In fact, Lincoln had fought against depression for most of his life. As a young man, he had contemplated suicide several times, and his friends described his ‘melancholy’ as a defining character trait.

In 1838, Lincoln even anonymously published a poem, ‘Suicide’s Soliloquy‘, in the Sangamo Journal. Its final, troubling lines were: ‘This heart I’ll rush a dagger through/Though I in hell should rue it!’ Lincoln’s bouts of ‘melancholy’ sometimes followed stressful events, such as the end of relationships or intense periods of work, but could also just occur naturally. At such times when, in the words of William Herndon, ‘his melancholy dripped from him as he walked’, he surprised people by telling jokes and reading humorous literature. Laughter, Lincoln, maintained, was essential for his survival. And thus, surely, that of his country.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
Virginia Woolf, photographed by George Charles Beresford, England, 1902. Wikimedia Commons

3. Virginia Woolf had her teeth pulled to ‘treat’ her mental illness

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was an English writer whose non-linear and stream-of-consciousness novels were instrumental in the development of the modern genre. Her work was, in part, a reaction to the constraints of Victorian novels, and included themes that would have been excluded from the male-dominated period. Woolf was a member of the influential Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists, and is also celebrated today as an important figure in the history of feminism. Beyond her fiction, Woolf wrote essays on the topic and gave public lectures to ensure young women were aware of the need for feminism.

Woolf was also suffered from depression. After the death of her mother when Woolf was just thirteen, she suffered severe mood swings and fits of despondency characteristic of bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, efforts to help her were primitive and misogynistic. In 1922, she had several teeth removed to help her ‘madness’, which predictably proved futile. She was also sent for ‘rest cures’ designed to help women with ‘nervous disorders’, treatments in which included force-feeding, the banning of literature, and isolation. The turbulent events of the early twentieth century only increased her sadness, and no useful help was forthcoming for the talented writer.

The failure of prescribed treatment and rest-cures meant that she took her own life in 1941. Her suicide note to her doting husband, Leonard Woolf, is heartbreaking and typical of someone suffering from depression. Woolf, like so many others, believed that her loved ones would be better off without her: ‘I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work… I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer’. A prevailing myth about suicide is that it is a selfish act, but Woolf truly thought that she was doing the kindest thing for everyone.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven composing the Missa Solemnis by Joseph Karl Stieler, Vienna, 1820. Wikimedia Commons

4. Ludwig van Beethoven revolutionized music and was bipolar

It is hard to overstate the importance of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) to the history of music. Beethoven grew up in the shadow of such greats as Handel, Bach, and Mozart, but his genius saw him try to find an idiosyncratic voice to express himself artistically. He irreversibly expanded the scope of sonata, symphony, and concerto: music has never been the same. Beethoven’s compositions marked the transition from the Classical period of music to the Romantic, and continue to inspire, perplex, and intimidate musicians to this day. In fact, Beethoven is widely viewed as the greatest composer who ever lived.

As well as overcoming his tragic deafness, Beethoven also fought against mental illness, most likely bipolar disorder. Like Lincoln, Beethoven’s suffering shows how mental health problems can arise in the most enviably successful of all people. He attempted suicide in 1813 and, when his deafness became apparent, wrote that: ‘I joyfully hasten to meet death… for will it not deliver me from endless suffering?’ Beethoven’s bipolar disorder, however, actually helped his musical innovation, as he focused his manic energy on improvising on the piano. Sadly, though, it was his use of alcohol to alleviate his anguish that ultimately killed him.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
The 1893 version of The Scream by Edvard Munch, painted during his period in Berlin. Wikimedia Commons

5. Edvard Munch explored his mental illness through his art

Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was a Norwegian painter, most famous for his four versions of The Scream (above). Despite receiving little formal instruction, Munch turned his natural flair for drawing into a pioneering style which went against the common, naturalistic style of nineteenth-century art. Munch’s preoccupation was emotion, which he depicted against any concern for accuracy. In part, he was inspired in this by a tragic childhood during which both of his parents, brother and sister all died. ‘Illness, insanity, and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life’, Munch reflected.

Munch suffered from anxiety and depression, which he expressed through his paintings and prints. Like Beethoven and Caravaggio, his mental health was fundamental to his unique style. The Scream, for example, was inspired by a very specific moment in Munch’s life. ‘One evening I was walking along a path… I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature’. The titular scream is that of nature, not of the open-mouthed figure. Munch’s heightened sensitivity meant that only he heard it.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton by Sir Godfrey Kneller, London, 1702. Wikimedia Commons

6. Sir Isaac Newton, the father of modern science, was a manic depressive

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was the shining light of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Newton’s great contributions to science include discovering the composition of white light, which paved the way for modern optics, and his three laws of motion laid the foundation for modern physics. He is best remembered as the man who discovered gravity, though the story of the discovery coming after an apple fell from a tree and hit his head is a myth created by Newton himself. In mathematics, Newton also discovered the infinitesimal calculus, which is vital to everything from biology to economics.

From his biography, however, most historians and psychologists have drawn the conclusion that Newton was bipolar. Newton’s childhood saw his father die while he was still in the womb and his mother remarry and abandon her son altogether. This trauma led to the fits of rage characteristic of manic depressives, which were to characterize his life: he recalled ‘threatening my [step]father and mother to burn them and the house over them’. Punctuating his violent outbursts were moments of terrible remorse, and his undergraduate notebooks reveal both his regret of acts such as ‘hitting my sister’, crippling anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

Newton’s mental illness meant that he had unwavering self-confidence, believing himself appointed by God and reacting violently to criticism of his findings. In 1678, facile criticism from Jesuits at Cambridge gave him a nervous breakdown. Fear of criticism made him conceal many of his most important discoveries, and but for the encouragement of his friend, Edmund Halley (of Halley’s Comet-fame), he would not have published his magnum opus, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Later in life, Newton suffered paranoid delusions, and isolated himself from his friends. Nonetheless, his great achievements saw him become the first scientist to be knighted in 1705.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
Sir Winston Churchill photographed by Yousuf Karsh in the Canadian Parliament, Ottowa, December 30th 1941. Wikimedia Commons

7. Sir Winston Churchill led Britain to victory in World War II, and fought a private battle against his ‘black dog’ of depression

Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was the inspirational leader of Britain during World War II. His uncompromising attitude to Adolf Hitler and public bravery inspired both soldiers and those on the Home Front not to surrender to the threat of Germany: enthralled communities gathered around wireless radios to hear his rabble-rousing speeches. With bombs falling and loved ones dying, Churchill offered encouragement: ‘we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills’.

Churchill was, and still is, a national hero. But, unseen except by those closest to him, Churchill was fighting another battle altogether. Since his youth, Churchill had been suffering from bipolar disorder. He fell into intense and lengthy periods of depression, sometimes in response to misfortune and at others for unexplained reasons. Churchill’s letters movingly allegorize these fits of depression as his ‘black dog‘: ‘I think this man [a doctor] might be useful to me – if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now – it is such a relief. All the colors come back into the picture’.

Manic depression lay behind Churchill’s many achievements. The aggression, iron will, and single-mindedness that made him the perfect wartime leader all came from bipolar disorder. His ability to work intensely with very little sleep came from the same source. As well as serving as a soldier and politician, Churchill was a celebrated writer, producing an astonishing 43 books and innumerable articles, and at his death, he left 15 tonnes of personal papers. He wrote so prolifically to keep the ‘black dog’ at bay. Churchill’s struggle with mental illness, without effective treatment, only serves to magnify his superlative achievements.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
Charles Dickens, New York, c.1867-68. Wikimedia Commons

8. Charles Dickens got depressed every time he started a new novel, and walked miles to combat insomnia

Another historical great from Britain, the name of Charles Dickens (1812-70) is familiar the world over, where his novels are enjoyed in almost every language. The morals and lessons from stories such as A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and David Copperfield remain relevant nearly two centuries after they were written. Dickens was wildly popular in his own lifetime, enjoying a long career and the respect and admiration of his contemporaries worldwide. After dying suddenly in 1870, Dickens was afforded the greatest honor available to a British writer by being buried in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey.

As is so often the case, Dickens’s great success did nothing to help his depression. According to his friends, Dickens would fall into a period of depression every time he started a new book, which would lift as the work progressed. Like Churchill, it seems that Dickens found solace from his mental illness through his writing. He also exhibited one of the key symptoms of depression, insomnia. He would routinely walk around London until sunrise, in order ‘to get through the night’. On a cold October night in 1857, he even walked 30 miles from London to his Rochester home.

Also Read: See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
Sylvia Plath, London, 1961. Hello Giggles

9. Sylvia Plath committed suicide a month after her masterpiece, The Bell Jar, was published

Sylvia Plath (1932-63) is a key figure in twentieth-century literature and feminism. Excelling academically as a girl, she won a scholarship to Smith College and was a Fulbright Scholar at Newnham College, Cambridge. A prolific writer, she sold her first poem to a magazine whilst still in high school, and married the famous Welsh poet, Ted Hughes, whom she met at Cambridge. Throughout her short life, however, Plath suffered from depression, and was institutionalized after attempting suicide in 1953 whilst a student at Smith College. There she underwent controversial electroconvulsive therapy, which can lead to all manner of long-term damage.

Plath’s marriage to Hughes remains a controversial topic. Some see Hughes as directly responsible for her suicide, as their marriage broke up due to his infidelity. Regardless, the facts are that a severely-depressed Plath was left to care for two young children. She simply did not get the help she so desperately needed, and committed suicide shortly after The Bell Jar, a thinly-veiled account of her depression and breakdown, was published. On 11th February 1963, she was found dead with her head in the oven, having carefully sealed the room to protect her sleeping children from the lethal fumes.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
John Nash, Princeton, 1950. New York Times

10. John Nash won the Nobel Prize for his work on game theory and battled schizophrenia for decades

The late John Nash (1928-2015) was a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician. Over his long career, he lectured at both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton and made significant contributions to game theory. He is the only person to have been awarded both the Abel Prize and Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. In the words of the eminent Mikhail Leonidovich Gromov, Nash’s work ‘opened a new world of mathematics that stretches in front of our eyes in yet unknown directions and still waits to be explored’. The world will be celebrating Nash and his work for centuries to come.

But as anyone who has seen the Oscar-winning biography of Nash, A Beautiful Mind, will know, Nash suffered from paranoid schizophrenia from the 1950s. This first manifested in his belief that there was a Communist conspiracy against him, but his struggles became public when he received gave an incomprehensible lecture at Columbia University in 1959, which alarmed his colleagues. Admitted to the McLean Hospital shortly afterwards, he spent much of the next two decades in psychiatric hospitals. When he reached his fifties, however, Nash’s schizophrenia mysteriously disappeared, possibly due to hormonal changes, leaving him free to continue researching unhindered.

By his own admission, at first, he could not accept that he was unwell. ‘I spent times of the order of five to eight months in hospitals in New Jersey, always on an involuntary basis and always attempting a legal argument for release… [until] I had been long enough hospitalized that I would finally renounce my delusional hypotheses and revert to thinking of myself as a human of more conventional circumstances and return to mathematical research, he said in 1994. Nonetheless, he also stated that, ‘I wouldn’t have had good scientific ideas if I had thought more normally’.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
Self Portrait by Vincent van Gogh, Paris, 1887. Wikimedia Commons

11. Unrecognized in his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh suffered from truly difficult mental health issues

Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) was a Dutch painter, considered to be one of the greatest Post-Impressionist artists. Van Gogh is amongst the most popular artists in the world today, and his Salvator Mundi was sold at auction for $450.3 million in 2017. However, he was unsuccessful in his own lifetime, as is often the fate of pioneering artists and writers, despite producing over 2,000 artworks in just over a decade. His life as a struggling artist was extremely difficult, but he was inspired to continue by his mission ‘to give the wretched a brotherly message’ through his paintings.

Van Gogh struggled with his mental health. He suffered frequent episodes of depression, crippling anxiety, and violent mood swings. In a letter to his brother, Theo, he describes the extent of his depression: ‘I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless’. In one psychological episode, van Gogh began to hallucinate and cut off his own ear before losing consciousness. He fatally shot himself in July 1890.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
Jack Kerouac photographed by Tom Palumbo, US, 1955. ASAP Journal

12. Jack Kerouac, leader of the Beat Movement, lived with schizophrenia

Jack Kerouac (1922-69) was a poet and novelist who was a significant influence on the culture of the 1960s, and remains a revered figure today. His Bohemian lifestyle captured a particular moment in time, and his chief literary innovation was the use of spontaneous prose. As illustration, his novel, On the Road, the essential work of the Beat Movement, was written in three weeks on 120-feet of paper taped together and passed through a typewriter. He refused to edit his work, living by the simple maxim, ‘first thought, best thought’, which remains the bane of lecturers teaching young Kerouac-aficionados.

In 1942, after dropping out of Columbia University, Kerouac signed up for the United States Merchant Marine. But shortly after beginning active service in 1943, he was hospitalized and examined by military doctors, who concluded that he was suffering from ‘Dementia Praecox’, or schizophrenia. He was consequently deemed unfit for service. In fact, Kerouac had actually been hearing voices in his head from a young age, describing how he heard God speak to him at the age of six when he was saying the Rosary, telling him that he would die painfully (which came true) but, ultimately, achieve salvation.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, France, 1801. Wikimedia Commons

13. Napoleon Bonaparte conquered much of Europe, and had Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Despite being born in Corsica to parents of Italian descent, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) came to view himself as a Frenchman whilst being educated in France. Having finished his education at a military academy and joined the army, Napoleon became a prominent figure in the French Revolution, convinced that the country was in dire need of political change. In the aftermath of the Revolution, Napoleon served as a military commander aggressively expanding French territories in Europe, and eventually became ruler of France in 1799, a post he held under the titles Consul and then Emperor until 1814 and again, briefly, in 1815.

Napoleon revolutionized the French military, reorganized education, and passed the egalitarian Napoleonic Code, voluntarily adopted by other countries. However, he has long been the subject of psychological evaluation. As well as giving his name to the Napoleon Complex, Napoleon is widely-considered to have suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This gave him the ruthless self-determination and sense of grandeur which made him a successful leader, but without the existing revolutionary fervor in France, his life could have been very different. As the man himself reflected, ‘revolutions are ideal times for soldiers with a lot of wits—and the courage to act’.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
Leo Tolstoy in 1897, location unknown. Wikimedia Commons

14. Rich, famous, and loved by his family, Leo Tolstoy became depressed and contemplated suicide

The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was responsible for two works, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, seen by some as the best novels ever written. Virginia Woolf (above), for example, described Tolstoy as ‘the greatest of all novelists’. He wrote in a brutally realistic fashion, with no recourse to artifice. The great nineteenth-century critic and poet Matthew Arnold thus described Tolstoy’s novels as more a piece of life than a piece of art. His work is, in places, notoriously bleak and miserable, and perhaps responsible more than any other author’s for the stereotype of Russian literature.

But, just as Tolstoy ‘had a good wife… good children and a large property… [and] could believe my name already famous’, he became depressed. Tolstoy wrote movingly of his mental illness in Confession: ‘I felt that something had broken within me on which my life had always rested, that I had nothing left to hold on to, and that morally my life had stopped. An invincible force impelled me to get rid of my existence’. Tolstoy also explored themes of depression, guilt, and suicide in Anna Karenina, his final novel, which ends with Anna throwing herself under a train.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
Edgar Allan Poe, probably Baltimore, May or June 1849. Wikimedia Commons

15. Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre tales were borne of genuine mental illness

Perhaps Baltimore’s most famous resident, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) produced a wonderful literary oeuvre which contains much-loved poems, such as The Raven, and the world’s first detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Elements of his work, such as the doomed House of Usher, and the pendulum in the nightmarish Pit and the Pendulum, still occupy the darkest corners of Western cultural consciousness. Though largely ignored in his native United States, Poe was an instant hit in Europe, and especially France, where his biggest fans included none other than Charles Baudelaire. Sadly, though, he died in poverty in Baltimore.

Poe suffered from depression, earning him the nickname of ‘the man who never smiles’. Consistent with bipolar disorder, to his loved ones he was ever-indulgent, but to those who criticized his work he was combative and intolerant. His stubborn attempts to make a living from his self-acclaimed writing alone, as well as his hatred of criticism, are also consistent with being bipolar. ‘I do believe God gave me a spark of genius’, conceded Poe, ‘but He quenched it in misery’. Nonetheless, it is easy to see how his poor mental health helped to colour and create his wonderfully macabre literature.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
Nikola Tesla in his Manhattan lab, 1896. Wikimedia Commons

16. Nikola Tesla was a trailblazing inventor who battled with mental illness

We have a lot to thank Nikola Tesla (1846-1953) for. Born in modern day Croatia, Tesla added practical experience at the Edison Machine Works to his years of dedicated academic study. After striking out on his own in his adopted country of the United States, Tesla’s chief innovation was the rotating magnetic field, fundamental to most alternating current (AC) machinery. AC is widely used in telecommunications, making this pioneering futurist’s contribution to modern life immeasurable. As long ago as 1893 he discussed the possibility of wireless communication between devices, and only a shortage of funding thwarted him from developing the technology.

In his day, Tesla was seen as the archetypal eccentric genius, but behind his unusual habits lay significant mental health issues, which may have been hereditary. Most notably, Tesla had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Although often used as a cheerful adjective these days, OCD is a serious condition, and Tesla used 18 napkins at each meal, walked three times around a building before entering it, and only occupied hotel rooms with numbers divisible by three. He also suffered from hallucinations after witnessing his brother trampled to death by a horse, to which he credited many of his inventions.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness

17. Ernest Hemingway was one of the world’s greatest novelists, and took his own life after decades of mental trauma

One of America’s great novelists, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) is remembered for works such as For Whom the Bell Tolls and the Pulitzer-Prize winning The Old Man and the Sea. In 1954, his literary achievements were recognized with a Nobel Prize. Long before these successes, Hemingway volunteered to drive an ambulance for the American Red Cross in World War I. In 1918, he was injured on the Austro-Italian frontline and decorated for his heroism. The things he saw, and a nurse rejecting his marriage proposal, stuck with him, and war formed an important part of many of his novels.

A true perfectionist, the high standards that Hemingway set himself meant he suffered from anxiety, which turned into decades of alcoholism. His notoriously foul temper has led some to conclude that he was bipolar, but Andrew Farah, a forensic psychologist, believes that he was actually suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from repeated blows to the head, which began with his injuries in World War I. The condition also accounts for Hemingway’s paranoia and psychotic episodes. Subjected to ineffective electroshock therapy, Hemingway sadly took his own life with a shotgun in 1961, like his father before him.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
Sigmund Freud photographed by Max Halberstadt, location unknown, c.1921. Wikimedia Commons

18. Sigmund Freud’s research is fundamental to modern psychology, but he himself suffered from depression

To understand the impact of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), not just on psychology but modern culture at large, we have only to think of words we use every day: Freudian, penis envy, Oedipus Complex, repression, Id, ego, and super-ego. Freud’s innovation was the creation of psychoanalysis, the study of the unconscious, and even his many modern detractors in the field owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Innovations in the treatment of mental health cannot be restricted for fear of appearing disrespectful to the founder of the very discipline, though modern society as a whole reaps the benefits of Freud’s innovation.

For anyone still seeking some sort of root, external cause for depression, Freud is the example to end all examples of the flaws in such a perspective. For Freud himself, who perhaps understood depression and mental illness better than any man of his time, suffered from poor mental health. As his friend and biographer, Ernest Jones, revealed, ‘for many years he suffered from periodic depression and fatigue or apathy, [and] neurotic symptoms, including anxiety attacks’. Though Freud took cocaine as treatment, claiming it had ‘the most brilliant success’, the drug ultimately failed to provide a permanent solution for his illness.

Read More: Facts from the Captivating Life of Sigmund Freud.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
William James (left) and Josiah Royce, New Hampshire, c.1910. Radcliffe Institute, Harvard

19. William James was prominent in both philosophy and psychology, much of which research and writing came from his battle with depression

William James (1842-1910) was a philosopher and psychologist, and one of the first people to study religious experiences and visions from a scientific perspective. As well as conducting pioneering research in psychology – James created the first demonstrational laboratory in the US – he also tried to find an empirical basis for the existence of God, the afterlife, and the immortality of the soul. Though his psychology (though innovative) is now dated, James’s change of career to philosophy, with a focus on pragmatism, anticipated many later trends on the topic and still has many admirers in the discipline of philosophy.

James, however, suffered from depression from a young age. He spent the first three years after receiving his MD battling depression and ill health at home. This came from a ‘crisis of meaning’, as James struggled to reconcile his scientific learning with his religious faith. Ceasing to see a purpose to life and doubting the existence of God, James began to suffer from hallucinations and panic attacks, like his father before him. It seems that James’s hereditary mental health issues were inflamed by this crisis, but his methodical attempts to reconcile science and religion led to his most important work.

20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness
William Tecumseh Sherman, USA, May 1865. Wikimedia Commons

20. The American Civil War Hero William Tecumseh Sherman once had to resign as General because of his poor mental health

Crucial to the Union’s victory over the Confederacy in the American Civil War was General William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-91). Sherman was a ruthless military commander whose uncompromising approach to warfare saw his men strategically destroy railroads and crops across the South to reduce the Confederacy’s capacity for warfare and civilian morale during his famous March to the Sea. This was the first instance of what became known as ‘total war’, a tactic which saw all civilian resources and infrastructure as legitimate targets. He remained a soldier after the Civil War, living by the maxim, ‘war is hell’.

Yet, in 1861, he resigned as general in Kentucky as he deemed himself mentally incapable of command: ‘it would be better if a more sanguine mind were here’, he told President Lincoln. Plagued by fear and self-doubt, he suffered a mental breakdown. Journalists with him at the time remembered him in a manic state, pacing ceaselessly and muttering things to himself. Though he recovered from this episode to achieve lasting fame, it has been theorized that he suffered from bipolar disorder: Sherman’s character was one of the extremes of hyperactivity and despondency, and he seldom slept or spoke to other people.


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Farah, Andrew. Hemingway’s Brain. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2017.

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Kleiman, Miriam. “Hit the Road, Jack! Kerouac Enlisted in the U.S. Navy But Was Found ‘Unfit for Service'”. Prologue Magazine, Fall 2011.

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