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Disability Bitch plays the retro-diagnosis game

27th January 2011

• Disability Bitch is published every Thursday.

Breaking news about classical composer and prolific opium-user Chopin, who died in 1849: he's just been diagnosed with epilepsy. And you thought you'd been stuck on the bottom of an NHS waiting list for a long time?
Composer Frederic Chopin
This retro-diagnosis came about because Spanish researchers have studied a bunch of letters he wrote, as well as some penned by his lover, George Sand. They've concluded that the hallucinations Chopin is said to have experienced were 'probably' caused by temporal lobe epilepsy.
Readers, I am sceptical. For a start, I hope my own doctors don't adopt the same technique and start reading my outpourings in these columns in an attempt to figure out what's up with me. Imagine what conclusions they'd draw from my period where I obsessively followed everything Heather Mills did.
Secondly, seemingly there's nothing Chopin has not been diagnosed with in recent years: cystic fibrosis, bipolar disorder, mitral stenosis, alfa 1-atitripisin deficiency and schizophrenia, for starters. I don't even know what all of those are! He's been speculatively retro-fitted with so many illnesses they've got their own Wikipedia entry.
Happily, I'm not the only one who thinks this is bunkum. Adam Zamoyski, a leading authority on the composer, thinks so to, and told the BBC's John Humphrys that most of the 'evidence' for this comes from his sometime lover who can't be trusted and, did her level best to portray him as: "a raving neurotic and psychological and physical spastic."

I know that sounds like something I would say but it was a direct quote from Zamoyski's interview on the Today programme this week.

To be honest, I'd be quite pleased if Chopin was spastic. I've got spastic diplega, and people are almost never retro-diagnosed with that. Moses was once, I think. The bible one.

You know what, readers, I HATE POSTHUMOUS DIAGNOSES. Ever since I heard about Chopin's rewritten medical history, I've been playing a new game. It's called Online Diagnosis Generator. Here's how to play:

Using an internet search engine, you type in the name of your favourite dead author, composer or politician, and the name of your favourite invisible disability. I guarantee that you'll find at least one webpage diagnosing that person with that condition, or something similar. It HAS to be an invisible one.
Author Jane Austen
See here, I just typed in "Jane Austen" diabetes, thinking nothing would come up, but Dr Google lead me to a Wikipedia entry, where it fingers her for an alternative endocrine disorder, Addison's Disease. The same page suggests both Charles Dickens and Osama Bin Laden had this same condition. Thrills.

Poor, retro-afflicted Jane Austen is also on the endless list of Famous People thought to have had Asperger's Syndrome alongside Isaac Newton, Alfred Hitchcock, Albert Einstein and Michelangelo.

I thought Charles Dickens might've been autistic, and although he does get an honourable mention on some autism web pages, it turns out the main thing he's been diagnosed with is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, largely because he liked things to be tidy. Conclusive proof, then.

Mr Chopin has some competition on the epilepsy front, because Socrates, Julius Caesar and Napoleon have all been retrospectively diagnosed, alongside various Saints.

You know what, I'd feel better about my life if there was a Saint with cerebral palsy, just like me. Can we retro-diagnose someone who's been beatified, please? There's always St Jude, the Patron Saint of Lost Causes.

It just seems a bit too easy to label someone from a bygone era. No one's ever retro-fitted with something that would've been ridiculously obvious in their day like total blindness, lower limb paralysis or an amputated arm. It's always the impairments we've only just invented, like autism, ADHD, or dyslexia - the ones that no one knew about at the time and which are almost impossible to disprove without the presence of the person concerned and an expert in the subject.
A statue of American president Franklin D Roosevelt
The only concrete example we have of someone turning out to be physically disabled all along is the one where it turned out American President Franklin D Roosevelt was a wheelchair user, a fact he tried to hide from public view. Even FDR is not immune to retro-diagnoses, with some claiming that rather than being impaired by what was said to be polio, he had the far more complicated to pronounce Guillain-Barré syndrome.

You know what, I bet FDR would be thrilled that the entire world is poring over the one personal thing he tried to keep secret. He's probably even more delighted the Americans erected a statue of him with a mobility aid.

Next, they'll be publishing a list of every girl he ever had a crush on, followed by a TV Special exposing every secret he ever had.

Facebook / Twitter

This week, I announced Chopin's new diagnosis on Twitter, where various followers responded that they're unsurprised it took so long, since waiting lists are so long (I stole the gag for the top of my column here, as you'll have noticed). Another suggested that the government should scrap ESA and buy us all pianos.

If you'd like to make witty remarks in response to my inane tweeting about dead musicians, you will find me here @DisabilityBitch on Twitter.

I didn't bother telling my Facebook friends about Chopin's suspected neurological weirdness, but you can 'like' me on Facebook as the terminology goes. Go on, like my hate.

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