Conversational Genetics

The effects of genetic diseases on our history and in our society today are overwhelming. So many famous people have suffered and so much of history as been altered by genetics. Society often tends to portray mutants as highly negative and in many cases these are. However, an interesting aspect is the significant numbers of highly successful individuals in our society and through history who have reached the tops of their careers in spite of (or even because of?) a genetic disease. Might this simply be an aspect of evolution? Darwin’s studies built the theory of the survival of the fittest to describe individuals that are better adapted for the immediate, local environment.

Listed in this website are some of the most famous disabled – perhaps the term differentially-abled is better suited – individuals who have dominated:

Disease and Art


People with only one functioning eye, or eyes that do not fix together will generally have stereoblindness describing a lack of normal binocular vision. It is recently suggested that many of the great portrait artists might have suffered such a defect. Indeed art teachers often instruct students to close one eye in order to flatten what they see. One often quoted example is Rembrandt (1606-1669), whose portraits reveal that his eyes did not propery align. This could have helped him to flatten images he saw on to a two-dimensional canvas

Colour deficiencies

There are numerous artists who were supposedly colour blind, describing an inability to differentiate between certain colours. In most cases one has to assume that their particular styles were a direct result of this. The paintings of Ferdinand Léger (1881-1955) characterized by bold (often drab) colours in geometric forms, was red-green colourblind and would ask his wife for the names of some colours when preparing his palette. Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) is also suggested to have suffered exclusively using only three fundamental colors of red, yellow and blue. John Constable’s (1776-1837) colouring of his landscapes which are primarily yellow and brown have abeen linked to blue-green colour-blindness.


Cataracts can affect the clarity and sharpness of vision as well as the perceived colour; acting as yellow filters they reduce transmission of the shorter wavelength colours to the retina like the violets, blues and greens. A number of artists have demonstrated this with paintings losing blues and violets and becoming predominated with reds, browns and yellows. Turner (1775-1851) is well thought to have suffered from these with his later paintings consisting more of reds and browns. This was also the case for Claude Monet (1840-1926) with his increasingly blurry browny paintings. These interestingly, took on a more bluish tint following an operation for the condition. The high incidence of cataracts among artists of this time has led to the quote that Impressionism is the world seen through cataracts.


It is further suggested that Impressionism may have also resulted from myopia or short-sightedness, leaving a lack of detail and more a focus to red. Artists such as Monet (1840-1926), Renoir (1841-1919), Degas (1838-1917), Pissarro (1830-1903), Cézanne (1839-1906), Matisse (1869-1964) and Rodin (1840-1917) all suffered which may have influenced their painting styles. In fact Renoir was known to step back from the canvas so that it was out of focus, while Cézanne, when offered spectacles raged, “take away those vulgar things!” Edgar Degas had to later turned to sculpture as his sight progressively worsened. It could therefore be argued that myopia may have allowed the artist to abstract the general forms and colors of the scene being painted.


Resulting in optic nerve damage, this disease can lead to complete and permanent blindness in affected eye(s). Loss of vision can occur suddenly in the case of closed angle glaucoma, while open angle glaucoma results in a gradual blindness, often over many years where a patient may not notice that they have lost vision until the disease has progressed significantly.

Physical defects

Perhaps the most well known example would be Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901), who inherited a bone disorder known as pycnodysostosis. However, it was his short stature that helped define his unique artistic style, particularly the ‘‘cut-off’’ technique subsequently adopted by many other painters, where objects and figures are truncated by the edge of the frame and his often unusual angles.

Mental disorders

A number of artists have been affected by neurodegenerative diseases. Willem de Kooning’s work became more abstract during his development of Alzheimer’s disease possibly due to an impairment of his visual memory while the Lewy body dementia of Mervyn Peake resulted in visual hallucinations that he depicted. Salvador Dali (1904-1989) developed Parkinson’s disease in his 60s that severely interfered with his work. Though he still continued to exert influence as a source of ideas, he could not paint and was caught out in the later 1970s signing thousands of sheets of blank paper, falsely rendering anything later added to the paper a Dali lithograph.

Disease and Performing Arts

Performing arts often relies on and encourages individuals with striking appearances and characters – in addition to acting skills, of course.

Tall Actors

Very tall people often have specific characters to play on the screen. For example, the giant butler Lurch in “The Addams Family” was played by two people Ted Cassidy and Carel Struycken who both suffered from acromegaly, when too much growth hormone suddenly begins to be produced in adulthood often leads to jawbone overgrow and thickening of the voice giving a deep and husky sound. Other sufferers were Richard Kiel who played Jaws from “James Bond” and Rondo Hatton who played numerous thuggish parts in movies.

Short-statured Actors

Short-statured actors also adorn our screens. One of the shortest men in the world, best known for playing Mini-Me in the “Austin Powers” series of comedy films, is Verne Troyer who was born with cartilage–hair hypoplasia. He shares this disorder with another well-known American actor, Billy Barty. There are also many well-known people with achondroplasia such as the actors Josh Ryan Evans who often plays a toddler, David Rappaport, and Jason ‘wee man’ Acuña the star of Jackass. Two famous short-statured people of “Star Wars” fame are Kenny Baker, who played R2D2 and Warwick Davis who played Wicket. Warick, who inherited a gene for Spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia also played Professor Flitwick in the “Harry Potter” and the title character in “Willow”. Early childhood Kidney disease is often another cause of short stature. This affected Gary Coleman, famous for his role as a young boy in the American sitcom “Different Strokes”.

Muscles Controlling Eyelids

Muscles controlling Eyelids are particularly sensitive to fatigue, we may experience heavy eyelids when tired. Some people, however, are born with a specific weakness affecting this muscle in either or both of the eyes and may be unable to raise the eyelid completely. Known as congenital ptosis, though, are a relatively large numbers of actors and actresses who show the characteristic. For example, film critics often refer to Forest Whitaker’s (Oscar for best actor “The last king of Scotland”) droopy left eye, as giving him an enigmatic sleepy, contemplative look. Sylvester Stallone, owes much of his trademark sneer, slurred speech and ptosis to a partial facial paralysis that he was born with.

Webbed Fingers or Toes

Bree Walker, actress and radio presenter was born with ectrodactyly in which her fingers and toes are fused together. Webbed fingers or toes (known as syndactyly), occurs between two toes of Ashton Kutcher and Dan Aykroyd. A related disorder characterised by finger webbing and an often disproportional sized hand (known as Poland syndrome), affected the late British TV presenter Jeremy Beadle and American actor Gary Burghoff, best known for as Radar in the “M*A*S*H” series.

Total Hair Loss

Total hair loss, especially during early-life is known as alopecia areata universalis (scalp) or alopecia totalis (whole body). This condition affects British actor and comedian Matt Lucas, who lost every hair on his body around the age of 6. However there are numerous actors who owe some of their roles to their completely baldness such as Telly Savallas, Yul Brynner and Samuel Jackson. Classic Actress Margaret Dumont famous for her roles in seven Marx Brothers’ films had alopecia universalis.


One relatively common phenomenon is the presence of two differently coloured eyes or several colours within a single iris, known as heterochromia. A number of movie actors have eye colour irregularities,
the presence of which may play some roles in creating a more striking appearance. For example, Christopher Walken has one blue eye and one hazel eye and Jane Seymour has one green eye and one brown eye. Two people with sectoral heterochromia are Kate Bosworth who has a hazel section at the bottom of her right, otherwise blue, eye and Jessica Cauffiel who has brown pigmentation in her left eye.

Autoimmune Diseases

There are a number of celebrities affected by autoimmune diseases. The singer Seal, for example has scars across his cheeks as a result of Lupus. Thyroid diseases can often lead to eye bulging, that can be seen in the face of Marty Feldman and Oprah Winfrey. Aida Turturro of “The Sopranos” has been affected by rheumatoid arthritis since the age of 12 while James Coburn picked up an Academy Award, and nominations for the Screen Actors Guild and the Independent Spirit Awards for movies in which he also suffered severely from the disease. Sir Laurence Olivier, in 1974, at age 67, he was found to have dermatomyositis, a degenerative muscle disorder, though still produced award-winning displays through this last decade.

Disease and Sport

Some of the greatest athletes and sports stars have performed with medical conditions. It is interesting to ponder whether many achieved their successes in spite or because of their disabilities – though, technically should we using the word “abilities”!

Growth Hormone

Growth hormone, secreted by cells in pituitary is a major controlling factor of several complex physiologic processes, including growth and metabolism. Increases in the production of this hormone can obviously lead to increased height, disorders known as acromegally if this develops during adulthood or gigantism if the overgrowth develops during childhood. Chinese basketball player, Sun Ming, standing at 2.36 meters (7 ft 9 in) is one of the tallest players to ever play professional basketball. However, in the summer of 2005 it was discovered that he had a pituitary gland tumour stimulating the over-production of this hormone. Professional wrestler, André René Roussimoff, also known as Andre the Giant, had acromegaly, which caused him to grow at an abnormal rate though passing away in his sleep at 46 years old due to heart failure possibly a result of his illness.

Deficiencies in Growth Hormone

Deficiencies in growth hormone lead to reduced height. One of the greatest footballers today, Lionel Messi of Barcelona, was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency at the age of 11, with Barcelona offering, as part of his contract, to pay for Messi’s expensive medical bills (daily injections of growth hormone) if he was willing to move to Spain.


Polydactyly describes the presence of extra fingers and/or toes. Interestingly, there have been a number of baseball pitchers with the condition, one of the more high profile players is Antonio Alfonseca, of the Philadelphia Phillies. Whether or not this may affect the flight of the ball is currently unknown. Sir Garfield Sobers, one of the greatest ever cricket players was born with two fingers on each hand – however, he had them removed at a very earch age.

Heart Defects

There are a relatively large number of athletes who have presented with numerous different heart defects, sometimes leading to sudden death. Sadly a number of sports stars have suffered from defects such as long-QT syndrome or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, some of whom have died during games. Sometime these defects can be detected early, such as in African Footballer of the Year, Kanu, who underwent surgery in November 1996 to replace an aortic valve returning to play for the National side until 2010. One of the most famous snowboarders, Shaun White was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a complex of anatomic abnormalities arising from the maldevelopment of the right side of the heart for which he underwent two open-heart operations when he was one year old. However, some defects do not appear to result in any symptoms at all such as in Randy Foye, a basketball player for the Minnesota Timberwolves has a condition known as situs inversus in which the heart in the right-hand side of the body.

Sex Hormones

Some athletes have suffered from alterations in sex hormones. Spanish hurdler Maria Patiño, member of Spain’s 1988 Olympic team, failed a gender test just before the competition began due to her androgen insensitivity.

Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt, the fastest man alive, does not have a genetic disorder, but his body is physicallyperfect for running. He has elongated Achilles tendons, high calves, and lean frame all contribute to speed. Recent studies have revealed genes associated with muscle size and power around 70% of Jamaicans have a variant Actinen A gene, compared to 30% of Austrialians. This gene helps muscle fibres create greater force, speeding up leg movement.

Disease and Literature

That terrible mood of depression of whether it’s any good or not is
what is known as The Artist’s Reward.
Ernest Hemmingway

Bipolar Disorder

There is much suggestion that great writers need at least a little mental instability. For example, a disproportionate number of eminent writers appear to have suffered from bipolar disorder prompting speculations of whether there is a link between this illness and creativity.

Bipolar disorder is characterized by severe mood swings, repeated episodes of depression, and at least one episode of mania. Afflicting more than 1% of individuals it results from a complex group of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors. Possibly accounting for as many as three-quarters of all suicides, the disease also increases risk of developing substance abuse and other mental illnesses.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) experienced the mood swings of bipolar disorder her entire life. Renowned for her creative insights into human nature, she may have wrote to make sense out of her own mental chaos. She was briefly institutionalized several times and though heavily supported by friends and family, at the age of 59 drowned herself by filling her pockets with stones and walking into the nearby river Ouse. Her family had a rich history of mental illnesses, with a cousin also suffering from similar symptoms and committing suicide at 33 years old. There are many comparisons with the great American writer Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) who after years of depression killed herself at the age of 30 by putting her head in a gas oven while her children slept in the same house. One of her children would then hang himself over 40 years later.

Creativity and Epilepsy

Epilepsy has also been linked with talent and genius and/or creativity. There are a number of well-known writers who suffered, with many describing their experiences in their novels. One syndrome caused by epilepsy, particularly during childhood is Alice in Wonderland syndrome. The author Lewis Carroll (1832 – 1898) often described his epilepsy attacks and the dream worlds that some of them may bring a person in his novels such as the sensation of falling in a hole and everything around getting smaller or bigger, alterations in sight, hearing and feeling as if your entire body is changing in a fraction of a second. The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s (1821 – 1881) illness formed the basis for his description of Prince Myshkin’s epilepsy in his novel The Idiot and that of Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, among others. Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870), also recorded epileptic seizures, in three characters, Monks (Oliver Twist), Guster (Bleak House), and Bradley Headstone (Our Mutual Friend). Further authors known to have suffered include some of the famous crime writers Agatha Christie, Edgar Allen Poe and Truman Capote.

Disease and Music

Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision
Stevie Wonder

Blind Musicians

There are a large number of blind musicians. One relatively recent study by Professor Ockelford showed that blind children are more likely to have perfect pitch with more than two-thirds of blind and partially sighted children in their research playing at least one instrument, compared with 41% of the sighted group. Their theory is that in blind children, the areas of the brain involved in sight are not being used, but others, including those used for hearing, become much more important. Interestingly, piano tuners are often blind.

Loss of use in fingers

There are a number of well-known guitarists lacked or lost the use of one or more fingers fingers such as the jazz great, Django Reinhardt, Tony Iommi from Black Sabath and Jerry Garcia.

Physical Deformities

Some musicians might owe some part of their musical gift to physical or medical deformities. For example, Sergei Rachmaninov owes his huge fingerspan to his suspected Marfan’s syndrome.

Disease and Politics

The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success.
Bruce Feirstein (screenwriter) James Bond, Tomorrow Never Dies

In 1945, in the town was Yalta issues being discussed by three men would decide the fate of post-war Europe and affect the future of the World for decades to come. One of the men, the US president Franklin D. Roosevelt was suffering the final stages of severe hypertension leading to vascular dementia, resulting in signs of cognitive impairment and reduced concentration that many believe seriously impaired his negotiations with Stalin. The Soviet Union leader himself also suffered from severe psychoses and nervous breakdowns. The third man, Winston Churchill wrote himself of his severe depression that he would self-medicated with excesses of alcohol.

A study in 2006 by psychiatrists at the Duke University Medical Center proposed that 49% of former U.S. presidents were afflicted by mental illness. The question is why are so many world leaders affected by mental disorders and, importantly, why so many refuse to acknowledge their conditions. Perhaps there are some links between the disorders themselves and the development of various personality disorders. Alternatively, narcissitic traits could be acquired during rule, for example a loss of reality with some studies suggesting lower levels of stress hormones occur in positions of high power that could lead to negative emotions and alterations in mental function and stress control.

Parkinson’s disease may have been a key factor in Adolf Hitler’s downfall, with suggestions that the mental inflexibility associated with it could have been what led to his slow response to the D-Day landings. Hitler had probably been suffering from the disease for 10 years, though his aides kept it secret. Similarly, the Spanish dictator General Franco also suffered from the disease during his last decade in power until his death as did, the Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

President Reagan made his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease public in 1994, though it was some years earlier, while he was in his second term of office, that some psychologists began to detect possible signs of the disorder in his conversation, speech and behaviour. At one press conference President Regan was asked about his plans for talks with the Russians on space weapons. He seemed confused by the question and was unable initially to find the words. Nancy Reagan whispered loudly, “Tell them we’re doing everything we can”. “We’re doing everything we can,” echoed the President. Remarkably, despite his growing dementia, he is remembered chiefly for his astute handling of the cold war, often against general advice. One of the first effects of Alzheimer’s disease is the gradual loss of short-term memory and the ability to reason and concentrate. The British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, first noticed these effects while still in office (he would have recognised the symptoms as his mother also suffered this disease), which may have prompted his unexpected resignation in 1976. Contrarily, Finland’s longest serving president, Urho Kekkonen who was first elected in 1956, was forced to resign in 1981 after a cover-up of serious memory disturbances suggestive of Alzheimer’s, which had emerged as early as 1978.

French, President Paul Deschanel’s had to resign after only seven months in office in 1920. Even though his wife was routinely signing official acts for her husband, she could not keep the symptoms of his frontotemporal dementia completely covered; he once received the British Ambassador stark naked save only his decorations, he jumped off the presidential train in his pyjamas and walked out of a meeting at the Rambouillet chateau to swim around the fountains fully clothed.

There are many political leaders who have showed mood disorders. Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson showed symptoms of the manic energy that characterizes bipolar disorder. Abraham Lincoln, suffered from severe and debilitating and on occasion suicidal depressions, while Winston Churchill would write of suffering from “black dog”, the term he gave for his severe depression.

Cancer and arteriosclerosis can lead to depressive illnesses and lethargy, which can seriously affect decision-making. These characteristics were all apparent in many of the elderly leaders of Europe between the two World Wars, particularly Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald in Britain, the Polish President Marshal Pilsudski and the Reich President of Germany, Hindenberg, whose frailty paved the way for Hitler. In addition, Neville Chamberlain suffered from cancer of the stomach when Prime Minister, being operated on in late July 1940, having only stepped down as Prime Minister on 10 May 1940. Further examples are Francois Mitterrand who in 1981 was diagnosed as having disseminated cancer of the prostate, in circumstances of great secrecy. President Woodrow Wilson suffered a severe stroke in 1919 while in his second term as President of the US. Not facing up to the seriousness of his illness, he referred to himself as being ‘lame’ while his doctor and wife said he was only suffering from a ‘nervous breakdown, indigestion and a depleted nervous system’.

Disease and Philosophy

There is no genius free from some tincture of madness
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (ca. 4 BC – 65 AD)

Much of our Western way of thinking is influenced by philosophers, some of whom suffered from mental and emotional disorders. Like artists and writers, creative genius is often somehow often woven together with forms of mental instability.

The Greek philosophers – Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, are rumoured to have suffered from bipolar disorder with writings noting swings between abnormally elevated or depressed moods. In fact, Aristolte was possibly one of the first to recognize some form of the bipolar category. Many more great minds through the centuries also suffered from this illness such as Isaac Newton.

Two of the most influential modern philosophers suffered severe mental disorders towards the end of their lives, with some of their later work being adversely affected. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) ranks among the most influential of modern philosophers. During early childhood he suffered from migraine, in the second half of his life he suffered with depression and at the age of 44, following a progressive cognitive decline, was institutionalized with what is suggested to have been frontal temporal lobe dementia. How much of his later writings might have been affected by this disease is certainly a matter of debate. Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804), perhaps one of the greatest figures of Western philosophy, may have suffered from Lewy body dementia. Known as a man of legendary regularity, for example his morning walks would always occur at exactly the same time has led to suggestions that he may have had obsessive compulsive disorder. Around the age of 50 a subtle deterioration of his mental powers began, gradually impairing his intelligence and judgement that progressed slowly toward dementiacharacterised by marked fluctuations in cognition with hallucinations. Some of his later, most important and controversial work may well have been influenced by this disease.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence for links between mental illness and creativity and psychosis, particularly schizophrenia. Perhaps one of the most famous, following the biographical film, A Beautiful Mind, is John Nash, the Nobel prize-winning mathematician. However, some research suggests that reason that this disease is do common, is that it is linked to the evolution of human attributes, such as creativity and that, depending on the particular pattern of genes we inherit ,we may all in fact exist along a spectrum of schizophrenia and creativity. For example, Albert Einstein had a son with schizophrenia and also had some eccentricities. Bertrand Russell had many family members with schizophrenia or psychosis: his aunt, uncle, son and grand-daughter.

Other renowned thinkers may well have been impacted by psychological symptoms as the result of other disease. Karl Marx, for instance suffered from a skin disease known as hidradenitis suppurativa, resulting in the appearance of blackheads, lumps that look like boils, spots and areas that leak pus. It is further known that these conditions can cause severe self-loathing and alienation with suggestions that the father of communism’s life and attitudes may well have been in some way shaped these feelings. In 1867 he wrote to Friedrich Engels of the boils “on my posterior and near the penis” – areas characteristic of the condition. In fact it was reported that Karl Marx was often unable to work because of the pain from some of his sores.

Guinness World Records

I can use my belly as a table
Garry Turner

Stretchiest skin

Garry Turner of Great Britain is able to stretch the skin of his stomach to a length of 15.8 cm He has the genetic disorder Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome which affects the collagen that strengthens the skin and determines its elasticity. This defect results in loosening of the skin and hypermobility of the joints. In more serious cases, it can cause the fatal collapse or rupturing of blood vessels.

Hairiest man

Victor and Gabriel Gomez of Mexico suffer from the rare condition called Congenital Generalized Hypertrichosis, characterized by excessive facial and torso hair on approximately 98% of their bodies apart from their hands and feet.