As a girlhood companion remembered her, Mary Todd, born 13 December 1818, was vivacious and impulsive, with an interesting personality–but “she now and then could not restrain a witty, sarcastic speech that cut deeper than she intended….” A young lawyer summed her up in 1840: “the very creature of excitement.” All of these attributes marked her life, bringing her both happiness and tragedy.
Mary Todd Lincoln had always had a hard time meeting the severe expectations for women of her era. Women, even famous wives, were expected to focus on the home and not seek attention or appear in public, but Mary loved the spotlight and had a knack for publicity. This created friction during her husband’s life, and after his death it would prove disastrous.
Daughter of Eliza Parker and Robert Smith Todd, pioneer settlers of Kentucky, Mary lost her mother before the age of seven. Her father remarried; and Mary remembered her childhood as “desolate” although she belonged to the aristocracy of Lexington, with high-spirited social life and a sound private education.
Just 5 feet 2 inches at maturity, Mary had clear blue eyes, long lashes, light-brown hair with glints of bronze, and a lovely complexion. She danced gracefully, she loved finery, and her crisp intelligence polished the wiles of a Southern coquette.
Nearly 21, she went to Springfield, Illinois, to live with her sister Mrs. Ninian Edwards. Here she met Abraham Lincoln–in his own words, “a poor nobody then.” Three years later, after a stormy courtship and broken engagement, they were married. Though opposites in background and temperament, they were united by an enduring love–by Mary’s confidence in her husband’s ability and his gentle consideration of her excitable ways.
Their years in Springfield brought hard work, a family of boys, and reduced circumstances to the pleasure-loving girl who had never felt responsibility before. Lincoln’s single term in Congress, for 1847-1849, gave Mary and the boys a winter in Washington, but scant opportunity for social life. Finally her unwavering faith in her husband won ample justification with his election as President in 1860.
Though her position fulfilled her high social ambitions, Mrs. Lincoln’s years in the White House mingled misery with triumph. An orgy of spending stirred resentful comment. While the Civil War dragged on, Southerners scorned her as a traitor to her birth, and citizens loyal to the Union suspected her of treason. When she entertained, critics accused her of unpatriotic extravagance. When, utterly distraught, she curtailed her entertaining after her son Willie’s death in 1862, they accused her of shirking her social duties.
Yet Lincoln, watching her put her guests at ease during a White House reception, could say happily: “My wife is as handsome as when she was a girl, and I…fell in love with her; and what is more, I have never fallen out.”
Her husband’s assassination in 1865 shattered Mary Todd Lincoln. The next 17 years held nothing but sorrow. With her son “Tad” she traveled abroad in search of health, tortured by distorted ideas of her financial situation. After Tad died in 1871, she slipped into a world of illusion where poverty and murder pursued her.
A misunderstood and tragic figure, she passed away in 1882 at her sister’s home in Springfield–the same house from which she had walked as the bride of Abraham Lincoln, 40 years before.
Was Mary Todd Lincoln Driven ‘Mad’ by a Vitamin Deficiency?
Could pernicious anemia, a disease caused by a vitamin B12 deficiency, have explained the many strange behaviors of Mary Todd Lincoln?
She was not exactly a model first lady. Historians have had a field day describing her violent temper, wild shopping sprees (she owned 300 pairs of kid gloves), depressed moods and all-consuming fears of burglars, storms and poverty. Late in life, at her son’s urging, she was committed to a mental hospital for several months.
Plenty of theories, none proven, have been floated. She was bipolar. She had syphilis or that well known cause of feminine madness, menstrual trouble. She was spoiled and narcissistic. She never recovered from a road accident in which her head hit a rock. She lost her mind grieving the deaths of three of her four sons and her husband’s assassination.
The latest addition to the list of possible diagnoses comes from Dr. John G. Sotos, a cardiologist, technology executive at Intel and one of the medical consultants who helped dream up the mystery diseases that afflicted patients on the television show “House.”
Dr. Sotos has long been interested in difficult diagnoses, and has written a self-published book suggesting that Abraham Lincoln had a genetic syndrome that caused cancers of the thyroid and adrenal glands.
In an interview, Dr. Sotos said that while he was studying President Lincoln, he came across something that intrigued him about Mrs. Lincoln: an 1852 letter mentioning that she had a sore mouth. He knew that vitamin B deficiencies could cause a sore tongue, and he began looking into her health.
Pernicious anemia could explain many of her problems, both mental and physical, he reported in an article published in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine.
The disease develops gradually in people who cannot absorb enough vitamin B12, which the body needs to make DNA. Deficiencies impair the ability to make red blood cells and can affect every organ, including the brain and nervous system.
Severe cases are not often seen now because blood tests can diagnose the disease early and doctors can treat it. But that was not so in Mrs. Lincoln’s day.
“With any complex disease that affects so many organs, you get a long list of symptoms,” Dr. Sotos said. “Mary had just about all of them.”
Among her symptoms: pallor, weakness, fatigue, fevers, headaches, rapid heartbeat, swelling and puffiness in her hands and face, periods of unexplained weight loss and eye trouble. Her mental symptoms also fit the bill — irritability, delusions and hallucinations, but with a clear mind much of the time.
Photographs of Mrs. Lincoln are portraits of the disease, Dr. Sotos said. He writes, “she was stocky, with a wide face, wide jaw, and widely separated blue eyes,” adding that those characteristics are common in people with the disease, though no one knows why.
In addition, he said, her parents were cousins, with ancestors from a part of Scotland where pernicious anemia was found in the 1960s to be unusually common.
Dr. Sotos said he hoped the diagnosis would lead historians to look more kindly on Mrs. Lincoln as “simply a woman with a biochemically injured mind.”
He said his findings had changed his own attitude. At first, when he read accounts of her hitting her husband and insulting him in front of guests, Dr. Sotos said, “I really didn’t like her very much. I feel bad about that now.”
Dr. Christopher Crenner, a physician and medical historian, called Dr. Sotos’ work “ingenious, meticulously researched and argued,” and said the diagnosis was medically plausible.
But he went on to say in an email, “it still amounts to little more than a parlor game for smart physicians. Diagnosing famous figures from the past is entertaining, but it rarely adds much to understanding history.”
Dr. Crenner, who is chairman of the department of history and philosophy of medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center, and president of the American Society for the History of Medicine, said it was already widely recognized that Mrs. Lincoln was mentally ill, though the exact nature of her illness was not known.
History should regard her with sympathy regardless of the cause, he said. A physical illness that can affect the mind — like B12 deficiency — is not more deserving of compassion than one that is strictly mental.
“Perhaps we might better engage in fighting the stigmas of mental illness directly,” Dr. Crenner said, “regardless of whether it might have been confused with what we now call pernicious anemia.”
- Mary Todd Lincoln Biography and Profile (White House / NYTimes)