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Tracing Abraham Lincoln’s Health

 

Abraham Lincoln was a pivotal figure in US history. As America’s 16th President, he led the country through the Civil War and was responsible for ending slavery. He was also the first president to be assassinated. Abraham Lincoln was also something of an enigma in regards to his health.

Abraham Lincoln was unusually tall and strong. At 6 foot, 4 inches, Lincoln continues to remain the tallest president. Medical experts studying old photographs have noticed that Lincoln also had other unusual physical characteristics. His arms were unusually long even for his height, he had a very thin build and his chest had an abnormal shape. His skin tone, hair texture and grey eyes are also considered unusual. As well, it is generally thought that Lincoln grew a beard to hide his ugliness.

Over the years, there has been considerable speculation that Lincoln suffered from some kind of medical ailment. At one time, it was thought that Lincoln may have had Marfan disease because a distant descendant in another branch of the family tree had the disease. Patients with Marfan disease are unusually tall and have long limbs and fingers. However, this theory has not generally been discounted.

The latest medical theory is that Lincoln may have had a rare genetic cancer known as MEN2B. This cancer can be detected by a DNA test. Dr. John Sotos, a cardiologist, wants to test this theory by taking a DNA sample from a blood stain left by Abraham Lincoln on a pillowcase on the night he died. This has raised an ethical and scientific debate at the museum in Philadelphia that owns the pillowcase.

The last known wishes of the Lincoln family came in 1876 (11 years after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination). The family explicitly requested that the remains of Abraham Lincoln be left alone. The request was prompted by an attempt to steal his remains from the Lincoln memorial in Springfield Illinois. Lincoln’s coffin was subsequently encased in steel and concrete to prevent further theft attempts. Thus, the blood-stained artifacts from the assassination are now the only way to access Abraham Lincoln’s DNA.

There has always been a great deal on interest in all things associated with Abraham Lincoln (see Abraham Lincoln’s Fingerprint Discovered on a Letter). Even after over 125 years, he continues to amaze and interest people. The latest request to test his DNA, however, raises an interesting genealogical question. What takes precedent: the specific requests of the family or the interests of the public in a pivotal American figure?

Footnote: The museum decided two months later to not proceed with the DNA testing of the blood stain.

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