Monday, February 20, 2012

Did Abraham Lincoln Have a Genetic Disorder?

February is a month where we not only celebrate the birth of George Washington, but also Abraham Lincoln. In a recent blog entry, I discussed some fascinating aspects surrounding Washington’s death. Today, attention turns to Abraham Lincoln. Unlike Washington’s death, many people are aware of Lincoln’s untimely demise via assassination.

FEATURED BOOK: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Many people are also aware that Lincoln had a distinguished yet unusual look about him. As you can see from the picture above, Lincoln’s distinguished look consisted of hollow eye sockets, long thin lips (with an m-shaped curve on the upper lip and a blubbery lower lip), and a long drawn out face. He was also tall (6’4), thin, and had large feet.

It has long been suggested that Lincoln had Marfan syndrome. Marfan syndrome is a genetic disorder of connective tissue which causes unusual tallness, long limbs, and long thin fingers and toes. Cardiac problems are common, with shortness of breath during exertion. While Lincoln was tall, he was not abnormally tall.  His fingers seemed proportional to his body (as is seen in the picture to his left) but did not look as long as what fingers typically look like in Marfan syndrome (see picture to the right). He was known as an excellent axeman, rail fence builder, and wrestler, which would have required good cardiac functioning. Geneticists now think it is unlikely that Lincoln actually suffered from Marfan syndrome.


More recently, a new theory emerged from Dr. John Sotos in a book known as The Physical Lincoln. The theory is that Lincoln actually suffered from a different genetic disorder that has skeletal features almost identical to Marfan syndrome, known as multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B (MEN2B). Individuals with this condition tend to be tall, thin, with a long face, and protruding blubbery lips. All patients develop benign tumors of the mouth, eyes, and connective tissue that supports mucous membranes throughout the body. Cancer of the thyroid almost always occurs and cancer of the adrenal grand occurs in about half of the cases. Chronic constipation is a common symptom.

Lincoln clearly was tall and thin, had a long face, and protruding lips. Other characteristics Lincoln was known to have that occur in MEN2B include constipation, low muscle tone, lumpy lips, and possible cancer. The right cheek mole, facial asymmetry, droopy-eyelids, and depressive-like symptoms were also considered to be consistent with the diagnosis. Lincoln may have also grown a long beard later in life to cover up benign facial tumors. People with the condition usually die young, which is the main challenge to this theory. However, Dr. Sotos believes that Lincoln would have died within a year from cancer if he was not assassinated at age 56.

Genetic testing can confirm a diagnosis of MEN2B. The “problem” is that no one is going to allow for a U.S. President’s body to be exhumed (especially not someone as iconic as Lincoln) to test such a hypothesis. In addition, Lincoln’s coffin was encased in steel and concrete after a theft attempt and the last wishes of his family was for Lincoln’s body to be left alone. However, there is one other possibility where a DNA sample can be taken from: a blood stained Lincoln relic. One option was the bloodstained pillow (pictured below) that Lincoln laid on after being assassinated, which is stored in a Philadelphia museum. The museum eventually denied a request to test it.


Dr. Sotos eventually joined forces with a geneticist at the Cleveland Clinic (Dr. Charis Eng) and they were able to secure a sample of a dress worn by Laura Keen. Keen was an actress who rushed to Lincoln’s side after he was shot, causing blood stains to transfer to her dress. After months of work the testing was only able to find some genetic mutations that could be minor contributors to MEN2B but no conclusive evidence that he had the disease. Only by obtaining further samples from other sources will it be possible to come to a definitive answer.

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