Abraham Lincoln was an unusual man in a number of ways, not the least of them his startling and haunting looks. In person, he must have been an imposing but somewhat daunting sight. Impossibly tall and very thin, in his top hat he appeared even more so;
But it was his face that was and is especially memorable: gaunt almost to the point of being skeletal, it seemed to express the suffering of a nation torn by an exceptionally bloody civil war, and even the suffering of flawed humanity itself. Those deep-set eyes, those sunken cheeks, that profound weariness—all were etched on a physiognomy that already seemed old and archetypal even when he was a young man.
Why am I writing about this today? Partly as a respite from all the other news in the world—Climategate, Afghanistan, cop killings in Washington, and the pending travesty of a health care reform bill that promises to be far worse than the ills it is supposedly designed to cure. But the proximate cause was my finding this recent HuffPo article discussing the asymmetry of Abraham Lincoln’s face (see slideshow of photos at the link).
It’s not the first time that this phenomenon has been noted and commented on. In fact, in August of 2007, a retired ophthalmologist named Fishman studied life masks of Lincoln with modern laser scans and concluded that, “The left side of Lincoln’s face was much smaller than the right, an aberration called cranial facial microsomia.” Here’s more:
Most people’s faces are asymmetrical, Fishman said, but Lincoln’s case was extreme, with the bony ridge over his left eye rounder and thinner than the right side, and set backward…When Lincoln was a boy, he was kicked in the head by a horse. Laser scans can’t settle whether the kick or a developmental defect — or neither — contributed to Lincoln’s lopsided face, Fishman said.
Interesting stuff. But, for what it’s worth, I beg to differ with Fishman’s diagnosis. Here’s a page on cranial facial microsomia, which doesn’t appear to fit Lincoln very well (see also this) Lincoln’s problems affect a different part of the face, for starters. And his eye problems (Fishman mentions double vision) as well as his headaches, aren’t accounted for, either.
I have a different and more parsimonious notion of what ailed Lincoln. I believe he had a mild case of Parry-Romberg syndrome, a condition that usually arises in late childhood or the teen years, and causes one side of the face to begin to degenerate. I am uniquely positioned to make this diagnosis, since even though Parry-Romberg is exceedingly rare, I’ve had the unlikely experience of having been very close to two people (completely unrelated to each other) who have confirmed but mild cases of it.
In its more severe forms, Parry-Romberg causes much more facial deformity than Lincoln demonstrated. But in its milder manifestations, it fits the bill exactly. I recognized this in Lincoln many years ago. In Parry-Romberg, there is thinning of the underlying bone (often in the cheek and the eye socket), as well as atrophy of the subcutaneous fat involving the affected parts of the face. This latter phenomenon gives the appearance of accelerated aging on that side, an observation the author of the HuffPo post on Lincoln’s asymmetry makes. It also can cause the headaches and double vision from which Lincoln sometimes suffered, and can be the result of early physical facial/head trauma such as Lincoln’s kick by the horse.
As far as I know, I’m the only one to have offered this diagnosis. But Lincoln’s other ailments have received a great deal of scrutiny over the years. Did he have Marfan’s syndrome? (Probably not.) Did he suffer from depression? (Yes.) Did he have smallpox around the time he delivered the Gettysburg Address? (Maybe).
This is my own small contribution to the field of what ailed him, although none of it really matters all that much. What’s important are the words and deeds of one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest—president this country has ever had, a man of extraordinary depth, wisdom, and complexity. Would that we had someone of that caliber today.