Daily Archives: April 22, 2009

Trivial Pursuit

The buzz used to be that Lincoln had Marfan Syndrome.  Then it was chronic depression.  Now cardiologist John Sotos is telling us that Lincoln had something called multiple endocrine neoplasia, type 2B, a rare genetic disorder that leads to cancer. 

Sotos is the same guy who diagnosed President Taft with obstructive sleep apnea.  Apneos, a company that specializes in sleep disorders, assures us that “[w]ith the possible exception of Lincoln, no man has faced greater challenges as President than William Howard Taft. ”  Apparently the War of 1812, the Great Depression, and the Cuban Missile Crisis were minor nuisances compared to a tendency to doze off in public.  But I digress.

Anyway, the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum and Library in Philadelphia has some fabric from a pillowcase stained with Lincoln’s blood.  Sotos is trying to talk the museum into allowing a DNA test on the artifact to determine if his cancer syndrome theory is true. 

I don’t find any of this medical speculation to be particularly significant, and I’ve said so.  What we’re dealing with here is a very specific question.  Was Lincoln sick, or wasn’t he?  That’s the scope of this investigation, and when you get right down to it, it’s rather limited. 

But you’d never believe it by listening to Sotos, who can make a pitch like a seasoned Hollywood pro.  From the above-linked news item:

The disorder leads to thyroid or adrenal cancer, and Sotos cites Lincoln’s weight loss in office and an appearance of ill health during his final months. He said a finding that Lincoln had the genetic disorder and probably cancer could shed light on his presidency.…

If Lincoln was seriously ill and knew it, Sotos said, that might explain stories of his premonitions about death.

‘I don’t think it was mysticism, I think that was him knowing what his body was telling him,’ Sotos said. ‘Then if you’re a historian, I think you have to say … how does that affect how you run the war, your clemency toward soldiers who may have deserted their post, the way you reconcile with the South?’

website on his research offers more breathlessly-reported implications.  You want to unlock the mystery of Lincoln’s awkwardness around women?  How about his indifference to his own personal safety?  Multiple endocrine neoplasia might just be good for whatever ails you.

What’s next?  Could a nasty arthritic cramp account for the brevity of the Gettysburg Address?  Could a flare-up of irritable bowel syndrome explain that spat with Meade after Gettysburg?

The fact of the matter is that by raising all these  speculative implications, Sotos is writing a lot of checks, and I doubt he’ll be able to cash them by drawing on mutliple endocrine neoplasia.  He likes history, and he wants to make the ever-elusive Original Contribution to historical understanding.  But his approach is too reductionist to accomplish everything he hopes for it.

In fact, his medical training may be a real liability when it comes to historical investigation.  From a purely medical standpoint, a human being is a skin sack full of physical components that interact in various ways.  When the machine breaks down, it’s a matter of finding the glitch and correcting it.  It seems that Sotos has approached not only Lincoln, but the study history as a whole, in this same manner. 

You’ve got a singular historical figure in extraordinary circumstances, and Sotos approaches this situation in the same way he would approach a patient with chest pains.  He finds some physical ailment that accounts for all the symptoms, and he runs with the ball.  That’s great if you’re dealing with a human body with a given complaint, but if you’re dealing with a human being in a set of historical/political/cultural circumstances, it’s just not the right tool for the job.

Lincoln was fatalistic during his entire life, and given his Calvinist upbringing, that shouldn’t be surprising.  His conciliationist approach to Reconstruction didn’t emerge out of thin air during his last months in office.  His leniency toward condemned soldiers is perfectly consistent with his behavior as a boy, when he regretted shooting a wild turkey and could never again bring himself to fire at anything bigger, and lectured his friends when they caught and tormented animals.

If Sotos wants to explain Lincoln, then he’s going to have to do history.  And that means poring over manuscripts, muddling through clunky monographs, chasing down references, and staring at the screen of a microfilm reader for hours on end.  That’s where you’ll find out what these people were doing, what made them tick, and what roles they fulfilled in their own societies.  No magic bullets.  No sudden “eureka!” moment in the laboratory.  It’s not any museum’s red tape that’s stopping him; it’s his attempt to diagnose history with one fell swoop.

“I’m not interested in how Lincoln might have died. I’m interested in how he might have lived,” he told the reporter in the story linked above.  If that’s true, then he needs to stop bringing a knife to a gunfight.

(Lincoln photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Leave a comment

Filed under Abraham Lincoln