One of my favorite classes to teach is Lincoln’s Life and Legacy, an introductory course that my college requires of all incoming freshmen. I assign an entrance essay that asks students for a short description of what they know about Lincoln and where they’ve gotten their information about him. Because every student has to take the class, the responses offer an interesting look at popular conceptions of the sixteenth president.
These essays are usually pretty similar. They invariably reference the Gettysburg Address, emancipation, and Lincoln’s assassination. A lot of them mention some aspect of Lincoln as a tragic hero (the loss of his loved ones, his depression, the cost of the war, and so on). This semester’s papers were different in one respect. My section is predominantly composed of nurisng students, and a lot of them knew something about the question of Lincoln and Marfan syndrome, an idea proposed by Abraham Gordon in a 1962 article.
First described about thirty years after Lincoln’s death, it’s a genetic disorder affecting connective tissues, resulting in long limbs, a narrow chest, and a hollow face. Marfan was present in a distant Lincoln relative, and the president himself had some of the outward characteristics, as the photo at left shows.
More recent scholars aren’t so sure. Marfan also affects the cardiovascular and nervous systems, and there’s no evidence that Lincoln suffered any of these symptoms. Marfan patients often suffer from near-sightedness, whereas Lincoln was far-sighted. Finally, Marfan patients generally have slender, delicate hands; Lincoln’s were anything but, as is obvious from the casts made by Leonard Volk in 1860. The preponderance of the evidence suggests that Lincoln wasn’t a victim of Marfan. One skeptic, in fact, suggests that Lincoln’s symptoms indicate a fatal genetic cancer syndrome, which would have doomed him to a relatively early death even if the assassination had not taken place.
If you ask me, all this medical speculation is interesting but not terribly significant. None of it explains Lincoln’s place within the nineteenth-century American political spectrum, or his rise from backwoodsman to national leader, or the policies he pursued as president. It doesn’t address any of the questions historians should be asking.
There’s no way to understand this man and his era other than by immersing yourself in reams of source material and applying mature, sophisticated thinking to what you find. One of the challenges of history is the fact that there are no shortcuts to approaching the truth.