More MS news articles for July 2000

Mystery of How Illness Affected the Famous

Description: What would the arts and our world be like if Vincent van Gogh had not suffered from manic depression or if President Roosevelt had not been weakened by hypertensive cardiac failure and cachexia during the Yalta Conference, or if Beethoven had not lost his hearing early in life?

American Association for Clinical Chemistry
Contact: Donna Krupa
703.527.7357 or
Cell: 703.967.2751 or
Moscone Convention Center Room #113, San Francisco 415.978.3647



San Francisco, CA - What would the arts and our world be like if Vincent van Gogh had not suffered from manic depression and the effects of digitalis poisoning from the treatment of his epilepsy while he painted "The Starry Night?" If President Roosevelt had not been weakened by hypertensive cardiac failure and cachexia during the Yalta Conference, might the outcome of the concessions have been different? Had Beethoven not lost his hearing early in life due to Paget's disease, would he have created such glorious compositions?

How illness has affected the lives -- and works -- of creative geniuses is the field of enjoyment and curiosity for Paul Wolf, MD, Clinical Professor of Pathology at the University of California and VA Medical Centers in San Diego. Dr. Wolf will discuss his theories and findings regarding the effects of illness and disease on the productivity and creativity of famous painters, composers, writers and political leaders during the 52nd annual meeting of the American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC). Dr. Wolf will speak on Wednesday, July 26, 2000.

Many of the world's great creative geniuses and political leaders are remembered to this day by the works and legacies they achieved during times of illness. In the case of the artists, sculptors, writers, and composers, the fact that they continued to be productive and creative despite their physical and mental conditions sheds light on the associations between illness and art. Illness can profoundly affect the productivity and creativity of those who are ill, but the degree to which an illness inspires, or perhaps even enhances, creativity is not clearly understood. Studying the lives and illnesses of creative geniuses gives us a glimpse of how these individuals adapted to the physical and mental conditions they experienced.

Physical Illnesses and Creativity: Physical illnesses have made an indelible impact on the achievements of many creative individuals. The repeated use of certain colors, for example, and the painting styles of both Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh, were affected by certain physical ailments and the medical treatment they received.

Antonio Vivaldi left the priesthood and instead dedicated himself to music because asthma attacks prevented him from conducting Mass. It is likely that Ludwig von Beethoven began to lose his hearing at the age of 28 and was completely deaf by the age of 44 due to Paget's disease of bone. Niccolo Paganini was likely born with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disease that makes joints extremely flexible, which allowed him to play the violin with outstanding reach.

Madness and Creativity: In the case of mental illnesses, speculation regarding the close relationship between genius and madness dates back to pre-Grecian mythology. More recent systematic findings by researchers indicate that highly creative individuals experience certain psychiatric mood disorders (such as manic-depression or major depression) at a higher rate than the general population. Researchers speculate that the mania produces unique, imaginative, and expansive thoughts and ideas that the artists are able to translate into reality with the help of their natural born talent.

Based on letters, journals, medical records and accounts by friends and family, the following writers, composers, and artists are likely to have suffered from manic-depressive illness or major depressive illness: Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Hermann Hesse, Tennessee Williams, Charles Mingus, Georgia O'Keeffe, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Gustav Mahler, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, Cole Porter, Paul Gaugin, Anne Sexton, Robert Schumann, and others.

Clinical Chemistry: Clinical chemistry is regarded as a young discipline that first appeared at the start of the 20th century and developed as an independent specialty after World War II. Following the War, there was a period of rapid growth characterized by application of the latest advances of industrial technology to the methods of the clinical laboratory. Also at about this time, the first scientific societies and journals with "clinical chemistry" in their titles began to appear.

The heritage of the subject can be traced back to much earlier times, but its identity was obscured by the many names that were used to describe it; e.g., medical chemistry, pathological chemistry, clinical pathology, chemical pathology, physiological chemistry, biological chemistry and clinical biochemistry.

What Clinical Chemistry Would Have Revealed: A sampling of the clinical chemistry testing of selected artists, composers, and political leaders that could have been performed if clinical chemistry existed, appears below:

Illness & Testing -- Selected Artists,Composers and Political Leaders
Indiviudals In Painting/Sculpting:
Person  Disease Laboratory Test
Cellini Syphilis, Mercury toxicity Test for syphilis, Mercury in urine
Van Gogh Epilepsy, Manic depression, Digitalis tox. Serum digoxin, Serum/urine tox.,  Screen for santonin4ru
Composers of Classical Music:
Bartok  Blast crisis, chronic granulocytic leukemia Leukocyte ALP
Beethoven Paget's disease, of bone, Cirrhosis, Pancreatitis Serum ALP,AST,ALT, Bilirubin, Amylase, Lipase
Chopin Cystic fibrosis Sweat chloride IRT, genetic tests for cystic fibrosis
Handel Acute myocardial infarction CK-MB Troponin T or I
Liszt COPD, myocardiopathy CK-MB Troponin T or I, Serum alcohol, liver and renal function tests
Mahler Rheumatic mitral valve, Bacterial endocarditis Blood cultures
Mozart Renal failure, Antimony Serum renal chemistry BUN,creatinine,antimony Mercury levels in urine
Paganini Ehlers-Danlos Syn., Syphilis, Tuberculosis, Merucry toxicity Genetic tests for EDS, BDRL for syphilis, Sputum culture, Merucry levels/urine
Rachmaninov Marfan's syndrome Genetic tests for Marfan's
Schumann Bipolar manic dep. Lithium levels
Vivaldi Asthma Immunoglobulin E, eosinophilia
Political and Military Leaders:
George III Acute intermittent porphyria Urine porphobilinogen
William Pitt Gout Serum uric acid
Benjamin Franklin Gout Serum uric acid

Conclusion: Without the benefit of modern clinical chemistry to accurately diagnose their illnesses, the debate surrounding how the achievements of the creative geniuses and world leaders of the past were affected will remain a mystery, and we can only wonder how the ability to identify and treat the illnesses of great geniuses then would be our legacy today.

AACC, founded in 1948, is the world's most prestigious professional association for clinical laboratorians, clinical and molecular pathologists, and others in related fields. Clinical laboratorians are specialists trained in all areas of human laboratory testing, including genetic and infectious diseases, the presence of tumor markers and DNA. The primary professional commitment of clinical laboratorians is the understanding of these tests and how to use them accurately to detect and monitor the treatment of human disease.


Editor's note: For further information and to schedule an interview with Dr. Wolf, please contact Donna Krupa at 703.527.7357, 703.967.2751 cell; or email your request to For further information log on to the AACC website at