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Lincoln and the Marfan Syndrome: The Medical Diagnosis of a Historical Figure

From: Civil War History
Volume 29, Number 3, September 1983
pp. 212-229 | 10.1353/cwh.1983.0002

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Gabor S. Boritt  

Gabor S. Boritt teaches history at Gettysburg College and is the Director of its Civil War Institute. He is coauthor, with Harold Holzer and Mark E. Neely, Jr., of By the People, For the People: Lincoln and the Printmakers' Art, 1860-1865, to be published by Scribner's in 1984, and the forthcoming history of the Civil War in World Book Encyclopedia.

Adam Borit  

Adam Borit, M.D., teaches at the University of Texas Health Science Center and the M. D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute, Houston. His previous affiliations include the medical schools of Stanford, Harvard, and the University of California, Berkeley.


A longer version of this paper was presented at the seventy-fifth annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, in Philadelphia, on April 2, 1982. We acknowledge our indebtedness to the commentators, David Brion Davis of Yale University, James M. McPherson of Princeton University, and Reed E. Pyeritz of The Johns Hopkins University Medical School, as well as to the earlier comments of Don E. Fehrenbacher of Stanford University, and the subsequent comments of anonymous readers.

1. A. B. Marfan, "Un cas de déformation congénitale des quatre membres, plus pononcée aux extrémités, caractérisee par l'allongement des os avec un certain degré d'amincissement," Bulletin et mémoires de las société médicale des Hôpitaux de Paris 13 (1896): 220-26; Victor A. McKusick, Heritable Disorders of Connective Tissue, 4th edition (St. Louis, 1972), 61-65; Abraham M. Gordon, "Abraham Lincoln—A Medical Appraisal," The Journal of the Kentucky State Medical Association 60 (1962): 249-53. The term "dominantly inherited" means that of the two gene alleles, one from each parent; the one causing the disease is dominant over the other. "Incomplete penetrance" means that the disease shows up with variable frequency in individuals carrying the affected gene, depending on other factors, genetic, environmental, or both.

2. Gordon, "Lincoln—A Medical Appraisal," 249-53; Newsweek, June 11, 1962.

3. Gordon, "Lincoln—A Medical Appraisal," 253.

4. Harold Schwartz, "Abraham Lincoln and the Marfan Syndrome," The Journal of the American Medical Association 187 (Feb. 15, 1964), 473-79; Time, May 22, 1978.

5. Schwartz, "Lincoln and the Marfan Syndrome," 473-79. (Cf. Harold Schwartz, "Medical Clues to Genealogy," revised MS of lecture delivered for the Southern California Genealogical Society, 1965, in coauthor's [GSB] possession.) The Lincoln-Marfan pedigree also included another unrelated patient with the name Lincoln.

6. Letters from A. M. Gordon, Harold Schwartz, and J. Willard Montgomery, in The Journal of the American Medical Association 189 (July 13, 1964): 164-65; letter from J. Willard Montgomery, ibid. 191 (Feb. 8, 1965): 64 [cf. "Lincoln's Inheritance," editorial, ibid. 187 (Feb. 15, 1964)], 530-31; letter from Schwartz, ibid. 192 (Apr. 5, 1965): 64; and 195 (Feb. 7, 1966); letter from Carl Ellenberger, ibid. 196 (May 2, 1966): 172-73; see also J. W. M. [Montgomery] to R. Gerald McMurtry, June 25, 1965, Collections of the Louis A. Warren Lincoln Library and Museum.

7. Harold Schwartz, "Abraham Lincoln and Aortic Insufficiency—The Declining Health of the President," California Medicine 116 (May 1972): 82-84; and Schwartz, "Abraham Lincoln and Cardiac Decompensation: A Preliminary Report," Western Journal of Medicine 128 (Feb. 1978): 174-77.

8. Walter T. Flaherty, "President Lincoln's Illness," Western Journal of Medicine 128 (Apr. 1978): 352-53; Schwartz, "Lincoln's Health—Dr. Schwartz Responds," ibid. 128 (June 1978): 550; see also Harriet F. Durham, "Lincoln's Sons and the Marfan Syndrome," Lincoln Herald 79 (Summer 1977): 67-71, which extends the Marfan diagnosis to the next generation of Lincolns.

9. "Lincoln's Inheritance," 530-31; "The Strange Case of Abraham Lincoln," The British Medical Journal 1 (Apr. 4, 1964): 858; Abraham M. Gordon, "Abraham Lincoln, der beruhmte Fall eines Marfan-Syndrome," Deutsches Medizinisches Journal 18 (May 5, 1967): 256-60; J. Couvreur, "Un cas historique de syndrome de Marfan," Nouvelle Presse Medicale 3 (May 18, 1974): 1321; Vera Fertig, "Le Morphotype du Syndrome de Marfan," J. Genet. Hum. suppl. vol., 25 (1977): 68-70; McKusick Heritable Disorders, 1966 ed., 135; 1972 ed., 65-68.

10. Michael S. Ramsey, Ben S...

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