By Jen Christensen, CNN
(CNN)Historians have long been fascinated with the behavior of Mary Todd Lincoln.
She was one of the most interesting and polarizing first ladies of the 19th century: Her unusually stormy moods, coupled with rumors of delusions, constant headaches and pallor, have led historians to suggest that she was “insane,” “hypochondriacal,” “menstrual” and the “female wild cat of the age.”
But a modern doctor and scholar, Dr. John Sotos, has a much more sympathetic take on her affliction. He believes she suffered from an ailment that probably would not have been diagnosed, an extremely common health problem in her time that is rare today.
After researching his new book and publishing a study in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Sotos wants to end the ailment argument once and for all.
Sotos, who was a medical technical adviser for the TV show “House M.D.,” believes he has solved one of the great medical mysteries of American history.
Mary Todd Lincoln, a paradox
But before we share Sotos’ professional medical opinion, you may be wondering why there is a debate about the health of a woman who hasn’t been to the doctor in 150 years.
When it comes to her health, biographer Jean Baker describes her as “the reverse of Teflon.”
“Every medical diagnosis has been postulated about her, it runs the gamut from Lyme disease to chronic fatigue to diabetes,” said Baker, an award-winning historian at Goucher College.
Historians also often described Lincoln with a kind of misogynistic dismissiveness, Baker noted, chalking her symptoms up to “hysterical” female problems.
Sexism in the historical record aside, Lincoln is difficult to pin down because she seems to have two distinctly different personalities.
As a young woman, friends described her as having a “natural kindness of heart.” She was well-educated, intensely intellectual and a gifted conversationalist at parties. As a partner, she was ambitious and politically astute, guiding her famously devoted husband, Abraham Lincoln, to become not merely the president but one of American history’s most important.
But in the White House, she developed a bad rap for her terrible temper and sour disposition. Angry outbursts earned her the nickname “the hellcat” from the president’s assistant private secretary. And, as one historian put it, regularly “she indulged in her orgies of buying things,” like some kind of Victorian Imelda Marcos.
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