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24 July 2014
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You are here: BBC Science > Human Body & Mind > The Mind > Mental disorders
Case Studies

Howard Hughes

Occupation: Movie mogul and industrialist
Disorder: Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes was a famous movie producer and playboy
Howard Hughes was a man of many talents, and just as many obsessions. He was a successful businessman, movie producer, movie director and an aviator. But he also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Business heir

Howard inherited an engineering business from his father, which he used as a springboard to build a business empire that turned him into a multi-millionaire.

He financed a string of successful movies in Hollywood including The Outlaw, Scarface and Hell's Angels.

Paid to obsess

But in the early 1940s, Hughes' germ obsession began to spiral out of control. Unlike most obsessive-compulsives, who carry out rituals by themselves, Hughes was so wealthy he could delegate compulsive behaviour to his employees.

Among other things, Hughes gave them complex instructions for handling objects. For example, before handing a spoon to Hughes, his servants were required to wrap its handle in tissue paper and seal it with cellophane tape. A second piece of tissue was then wrapped over the first protective wrapping. On receiving the spoon, Hughes would use it with the handle still covered.

Bizarre orders

Other instructions to his employees were even more elaborate. In order to remove his hearing-aid cord from the bathroom cabinet, servants were told:
  • Use six to eight tissues to turn the knob on the bathroom door
  • Then use six to eight new tissues to open the bathroom cabinet and remove an unused bar of soap
  • Clean your hands with the soap
  • Use at least fifteen tissues to open the door to the cabinet containing the hearing aid
  • Remove the sealed envelope containing the hearing aid with two hands using another fifteen tissues in both hands
Hughes' fear of contamination turned him into a complete recluse. He rarely ventured out of the exclusive hotel rooms he stayed in, so sightings of the tycoon were eagerly reported by the media.

Arm full of needles

In the final decade of his life, Hughes worked for days without sleep in rooms shielded by black curtains. His meagre diet and addiction to the drug codeine left him increasingly emaciated. He also stopped cutting the nails on his hands and feet, letting them grow to a grotesque length.

When he died in 1976, his body was so thin that observers likened him to a captive from a Japanese prisoner of war camp. X-rays taken during his autopsy showed fragments of hypodermic needles broken off in his arms.

The man whose face was once splashed on magazine covers all over the world was so unrecognisable that he had to be identified by his fingerprints.











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