Historical Figures Who May Have Had Mental Illnesses

By Kaylor Jones
Professional Writing and Psychology, Honors College

The Scream, by Edvard Munch, a painter who may have had bipolar disorder

With a much more sophisticated approach to diagnosing and understanding mental illnesses than was present in the past few centuries, historians and psychologists are now able to look back at some of the most influential historical figures and put together the puzzle pieces – what were once seen as abnormal behaviors can often be reinterpreted as symptoms of a retroactively diagnosed mental disorder.

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How Are Mental Illnesses Diagnosed?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the authoritative guide for identifying abnormal mental states. Complete with descriptions, symptoms and other criteria, the handbook provides a common language in an area that tends to be quite subjective.

It is periodically updated by the American Psychological Association to ensure that health care professionals are using information that reflects the findings of current research. When historians and psychologists are looking to offer diagnoses for people who are long dead, their tool belt should include the DSM, personal correspondence, diary entries and firsthand accounts of the individual in question.

Nikola Tesla

This pioneering inventor and futurist possessed a slew of near-debilitating obsessions and compulsions. His strict daily regimen included curling his toes one hundred times each night and repeatedly washing his hands, the latter serving as a staple symptom of OCD in the DSM. He was reportedly obsessed with the number three and its factors, specifically requesting hotel rooms divisible by the number, needing to walk around a building three times before entering it, folding 18 napkins with each meal and asking for 18 fresh towels each morning.

The modern concepts of OCD began to take shape in the 19th century, the later part of Tesla’s life. During Tesla’s career, however, he was either labeled “eccentric” or “insane.” Tesla’s daily struggle with abnormal behavior serves as a textbook example of using the evidence available to retroactively diagnose a mental disorder with the help of modern research and understanding.

Charles Darwin

Darwin, one of the world’s most prominent biologists, exhibited the symptoms of panic disorder, which culminated in severe panic attacks that included heart palpitations, excessive crying, feelings of impending doom and hysterical crying. One of the symptoms of panic disorder in the DSM is concern over future attacks and significant changes in behavior related to them. Darwin fulfilled both of these criteria by refusing to leave his house later in his life and turning down speaking engagements for fear of his heart palpitations.

Ludwig van Beethoven

This renowned composer had a variety of illnesses throughout his life, most notably deafness, but one psychiatrist posits that Beethoven suffered from bipolar disorder as well. The DSM defines bipolar disorder as periods of mania followed by bouts of depression.

These manic episodes are usually characterized by a persistent, abnormally elevated mood, often including distractibility and an increase in goal-directed activity. This could be seen in Beethoven’s tendency to go on worryingly long composing sprees, often working on multiple pieces of music simultaneously. During these periods, his confidence and energy levels increased, and he would sometimes refuse to join his friends for supper because he did not wish to be disturbed from his work.

In correspondence, Beethoven also described the depression that he would suffer through for weeks at a time. He was plagued by thoughts of death, and in 1802, he wrote to a friend begging for “but one more day of pure joy.” These periods fall under the DSM’s description of major depressive episodes, which includes suicidal ideation and diminished feelings of pleasure.

Edvard Munch

The famous Norwegian painter similarly lived through bouts of depression that he called his “sufferings.” These bouts, followed by manic periods similar to Beethoven’s, were described in diary entries and influenced his modern day diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Munch also experienced auditory and visual hallucinations, which contributed to a diagnosis of psychotic disorder, in this case due to his other medical disorder rather than substance abuse. In fact, he wrote that his most famous painting, “The Scream,” was inspired by a visual hallucination he had while walking down the road with his friends.

Learn More

Grand Canyon University values an interdisciplinary approach to the social sciences. Curious and intellectually-driven students can use their knowledge of their field of study as a lens to explore other areas of interest for a well-rounded educational experience.

One such instance of this is leveraging one’s competency in abnormal psychology to apply the symptoms of mental disorders to people who lived before the diagnoses were standardized. Not only is this practice for one’s future career, but it provides a valuable look into the rich and varied study of history. Both of these rewarding fields value the importance of critical thinking and analytical skills. Visit the webpage of GCU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences to learn more.

Click the Request More Information button on this page or visit our website to get started on your journey to find your purpose.



American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (5th Edition). Washington, DC.

Mai, Francois Martin. Diagnosing Genius: The Life and Death of Beethoven. Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007.

Rothenberg, Albert. “Creativity and Mental Illness II: The Scream.” Psychology Today, March 24, 2015.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.