Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Doctor Speculates on Lincoln's Genetic Defect

Abraham Lincoln, 1865

Move over Marfan’s Syndrome and make way for MEN 2B, short for “multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B.”

That’s right. Dr. John G. Sotos, a California doctor and an armchair historian to boot, has just announced that Lincoln suffered from one of the rarest genetic abnormalities known to man.

Let me be clear with this one. Dr. Sotos has not tested Lincoln’s DNA. Sufferers of MEN 2B have a mutation of a gene called RET on chromosome 10. Researchers have no clue whether or not Lincoln's chromosome 10 had a mutation.

Instead of DNA evidence, Dr. Sotos has complied a web-based book of every known description of Lincoln’s health and physical features. According to Sotos, Lincoln exhibits several symptoms linked to MEN 2B.

According to the Washington Post story:

One of MEN 2B's many manifestations are neuromas, or lumps of nerve tissue, on the tongue, lips and eyelids. There are no pictures of Lincoln's tongue, but his lips have a bumpy appearance in photographs. The hint of a lump on the right side of his lower lip is even visible in the engraved image on the $5 bill.

These growths also occur in the intestines and can cause constipation and diarrhea. Lincoln had lifelong constipation, and briefly during his presidency he took mercury-containing pills called "blue mass" to relieve it.

But the diagnosis doesn't stop there.

Dr. Sotos believes Lincoln had cancer while in the White House. Sotos points to Lincoln’s weight-loss during the Civil War, a fainting episode in 1865, as well as the president’s periodic complaints of severe headaches, cold hands and feet. Sotos says all of these are symptoms of MEN 2B.

And, of course, since MEN 2B is a genetic disease, Sotos claims that Lincoln probably inherited it from his mother, who died in 1818 of the milk-sickness. Again, he has no evidence to support his conclusion. No one has tested Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s DNA.

Sotos goes even further with his theory. He says Lincoln probably passed on the genetic disease to at least two of his sons, Willie and Tad. Again, he has no DNA evidence; he bases his diagnosis on pictures of the boys’ lips and the fact that they both died young.

I suppose we will keep hearing such wild speculation as long as we do not have a record of Lincoln’s DNA.

Samples of Lincoln’s hair are available, as are blood samples from the blood-stained sheet and the doctor’s clothes on the night of the assassination. The government has also preserved at least eight skull fragments from Lincoln’s autopsy.

As soon as our technology reaches a point in which researchers can perform tests on these objects without destroying them, we will have a record of Lincoln’s DNA. And then, I hope, we can put such wild medical speculation to rest.


Anonymous said...

Why is this "wild" speculation? The reasoning seems pretty sound, as laid out in the Post story. I did not see you provide any refutation.

Kevin said...

But that's exactly the problem. There is no way to refute Sotos's claims because it is simply speculation. As the article notes the only way to verify the claim is with a sample that may or may not reveal the DNA. Without it the so-called evidence can be explained any number of ways. Maybe Lincoln was just an awkward looking man.

Kevin at Civil War Memory

Samuel P. Wheeler said...

Thanks for the comments!

Anonymous--The burden of proof rests squarely on the doctor's shoulders. He made an interesting claim, but offered no solid evidence to support it.

Kevin--You're right on the money!