With the recent discovery that King Tut was afflicted with the parasitic disease malaria, I wanted to briefly explore infectious diseases that affected or killed famous people throughout history, ancient and current.

Edgar Allan Poe/Public domain image
Edgar Allan Poe/Public domain image

The diseases are as old as history, like tuberculosis, polio and syphilis, and particularly in the pre-antibiotic and pre-vaccine era, afflicted people regardless of fame and socioeconomic status.

Here I’d like to go over some of the more common diseases and famous people.

Tuberculosis has afflicted famous people throughout history and was once considered a romantic disease since it produced no repulsive or unattractive lesions like smallpox for example. Some musicians, poets and writers are notorious for their affliction with TB.

Here is a small list:

Writers are well represented in the tuberculosis list: Walt Whitman, John Keats, Lord Byron, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Sir Walter Scott, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allen Poe, and George Orwell are a small sample of writers who were afflicted with TB.

Others included musician Frederic Chopin, Gone with the Wind star, Vivian Leigh and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis have also been a “plague” on humankind since the beginning. The conventional theory is that Columbus brought it to Europe from the New World. But it is certain that some people had syphilis: Al Capone, Henry VIII and Ivan the Terrible did have the STD.

J.E.B. Stuart, Joseph Goebbles and Frederick the Great each were infected with Neisseria gonorrheaoe, the cause of gonorrhea.

Several of the US Presidents also could not escape the scourge of infectious diseases. As everyone knows, Franklin Roosevelt had polio, Woodrow Wilson had influenza from the 1919 pandemic and the father of our country, George Washington perished to a peritonsillar abscess infection.

Many historians believe Alexander the Great perished to typhoid fever.

AIDS, which many consider the modern day “plague” and makes people susceptible to a plethora of infectious agents has claimed the lives of actor Rock Hudson, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and tennis great, Arthur Ashe.

In addition, we saw Muppets creator Jim Henson perish to a streptococcal pneumonia/bacteremia, and rock icon Bob Dylan suffer from a Histoplasma fungal infection surrounding his heart.

This is a very short, non-exhaustive list, but it illustrates that infectious diseases do not respect status, fame, fortune or time, and will certainly raise its ugly head even in the era of vaccination and antibiotics.