10 Most Extreme Cases of OCD in History
A School Psychologist Files guest article
OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, was first named in the late 19th century, but it has probably existed throughout human history. In short, it is an anxiety disorder characterized by repetitive behavior, bizarre rituals, and obsessive, irrational worrying – all of which can make living a “normal” life extremely difficult.
Still, the old axiom that there’s a fine line between madness and genius might be seen to apply when it comes to extreme OCD. Plenty of the recorded or suspected OCD cases from history have involved leaders and innovators. And who knows? Maybe their conditions helped make them the great people they were. Read on for 10 of the most extreme OCD cases ever.
10. Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943)
Nikola Tesla is recognized as one of the greatest inventors of the 20th century. The foundations of modern electrical engineering, x-rays, radar and radio all came from his remarkable brain. Yet Tesla also had an obsessive mind. On the positive side, this contributed to his eidetic memory, helping his ability to focus on his experiments; but on the flipside, Tesla suffered with chronic symptoms of OCD.
Apart from having a similar germ phobia to Howard Hughes (see entry 1), Tesla was obsessed with the number three, and before entering a building he would often feel the urge to walk around the block three times. He would disconcert guests by estimating the mass of his meal before taking a bite and counting jaw movements while he was eating. What’s more, he always used 18 napkins and would not eat alone in the company of a woman.
Tesla also developed a phobia of round objects, particularly women’s earrings and jewelry in general, and would refuse to shake hands upon meeting people. He also couldn’t bear to touch hair.
Tesla’s OCD tendencies, along with his seclusion and other oddities, may have been connected to his lifelong celibacy, which he claimed helped him to concentrate on his experiments. Still, looking at what he accomplished in his lifetime, he must have been able to focus pretty well.
9. “Jean,” in Obsessions and Psychasthenia (1903)
“Jean” was a 30-year-old male case recorded by French psychiatrist Pierre Janet in his classic text Obsessions and Psychasthenia. Jean was also a very memorable example of an OCD patient who was obsessed with health and the possibility of his own death.
Janet noted that his patient felt the need to constantly check his own heartbeat and that he became anxious at the slightest irregularity. Despite his healthiness, he was unable to attend funerals or pass in front of his local town hall when the announcements of deaths were taking place.
Jean also had an obsession with his own genitals – suffering great pain as a result – and he would spend days at a time rubbing ointments on the area.
8. The William Hammond Case (1879)
This case was recorded by the US military physician and neurologist William Hammond and is notable as one of the earliest detailed accounts of compulsive washing in history. His patient was an 18-year-old woman who became obsessed with being “contaminated” by what was around her.
The patient’s obsession increased to the point where she was unable to make contact with any surface without washing her hands. According to her mother, she would do so over 200 times each day. And remember, this was the 19th century, when people weren’t nearly as fastidious about cleanliness as they are today.
Whilst on the street, she had to gather her clothes up to avoid touching other people, as she considered them sources of contamination. When questioned, the woman admitted that her compulsions made no sense but still found that she could not stop acting on them – a common OCD experience.
7. Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)
It’s a little known fact that Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther suffered from obsessions and repetitive patterns of thought, which has led many modern commentators to believe that he was afflicted with OCD.
Luther described feelings of “fleshly lust, wrath, hatred, or envy against any brother,” which constantly “vexed” him and would not leave no matter how hard he tried to block them from his mind. He also experienced periods of “blasphemous” thought that left him confused and disturbed – one of the classic symptoms of OCD that commonly causes sufferers to experience uncontrollable mental images that oppose their normal desires.
6. Richard Wallace (1950 – )
Compulsive hoarding is a form of OCD that involves cluttering a living space with items to the point where it can become uninhabitable. UK resident Richard Wallace is an extreme case, a man with a collection of junk so large that in 2011 it took up an area larger than his house. This junk pile was so large that it could even be seen on Google Earth.
Wallace’s hoarded goods included six rusting classic cars and stacks of newspapers going back 34 years. He was unable to use any of the space inside his house and had to sleep and eat in his chair.
A senior planning officer from the Mole Valley Council in Surrey served an order on Wallace in 2009 instructing him to clean up his garden. But Mr Wallace fought the order, explaining that it was his “human right” to hoard.
Still, with the help of his neighbors, Wallace did clear up his garden, removing 30 tons of junk in just one afternoon. Finally, he could walk to his front door again. He has since sought an appointment with a psychologist to deal with his hoarding issues.
5. Ernst Lanzer, a.k.a. the “Rat Man” (1907)
A patient who first came to Sigmund Freud in 1907, Ernst Lanzer became a classic case for the founding father of psychoanalysis. Lanzer’s condition was marked by a number of obsessive thoughts, the most notable of which was an intense fear that a female friend (whom he eventually married) and his father would be tortured using a bizarre Chinese method involving a rat, described to him by an army colleague.
Lanzer also complained of other obsessive thoughts, such as cutting his own throat with a razor. Freud interpreted the symptoms as Lanzer identifying himself with the rat and thus having fantasies involving both his father and his female friend.
The so-called “Rat Man” was later used as a showcase for the psychiatrist’s newly developed method of psychoanalysis, but Freud heavily exaggerated when he claimed to have cured Lanzer completely. A letter to Carl Jung written in 1909 revealed that the patient’s problems continued to trouble him.
4. Johanna H (1895)
Johanna H was a patient at the University of Budapest in 1895 who suffered from severe symptoms of OCD. Having been married for one year, she became obsessed with the idea that she would have an affair, particularly someone she had just met or seen.
Despite being happily married and having no desire for infidelity, Johanna’s belief in this idea was so strong that if somebody told her that she had had sex with a man her first thought would be to believe them.
Johanna eventually created a linen “chastity belt” for herself, to which only her husband had the key, so that she would not be led into temptation. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Julius Donath, attempted to treat her condition with hypnosis, but Johanna H stopped appearing after only four sessions.
3. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (1824 – 1863)
Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was one of the most brilliant commanders on either side of the American Civil War – yet he was also one of the oddest. To this day, military historians regard Jackson as “one of the most gifted tactical commanders in US History,” yet his life was affected by what many people have speculated to be symptoms of OCD.
Before becoming a general, Jackson was an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute, where he was considered “appallingly bad,” largely because of his petty, obsessive approach to discipline and his inability to communicate with his students. Jackson was seen as secretive and antisocial, rarely seeking out company – although he was respected as a member of his church.
His private life was characterized by eccentricity, hypochondria and bizarre obsessions, including the belief that his arms were of unequal length. As such, he had a habit of lifting the “longer” arm into the air to balance out his circulation. However, despite his obsessive behavior, Jackson’s leadership probably enabled the Confederates to win more victories than would otherwise have been possible.
2. Mad’lle F (1838)
The case of 34-year-old Mad’lle F was recorded by French psychiatrist J.E.D. Esquirol, and apart from being bizarre, it’s notable for being the first compulsive checking behavior described by a medical authority. At the age of 18, while leaving her aunt’s house one day, Mad’lle F was seized by the idea that she might accidentally take something that belonged to her relative.
To begin with, this symptom merely manifested itself in her deliberately not wearing her apron when visiting her aunt, but it later developed into a complex series of rituals. Upon waking, she would rub her feet for ten minutes in order to make sure that nothing had been caught in her toes or between her nails. She would then check her slippers for items “of value,” before handing them over to her long-suffering chambermaid to repeatedly check and shake. Next, she would run a comb through her hair numerous times to ensure that nothing was trapped there. Finally, she would vigorously shake her hands and rub her fingers until she was convinced that there was nothing on them. The sheer force of these actions exhausted Mad’lle F.
Like many OCD sufferers, Mad’lle F was very aware of the ridiculousness of her condition and rituals but was unable to stop making her compulsive checks. Small wonder, then, that Esquirol described OCD as a kind of “partial insanity.”
1. Howard Hughes (1905 – 1976)
Legendary aviator, filmmaker and businessman Howard Hughes was perhaps the closest thing the mid-20th century had to a Renaissance man. Yet his obsessive drive to tinker with mechanical objects (he once re-designed his bed to be more comfortable during a stay in hospital) may have been related to the OCD symptoms he developed later in life. These symptoms included a morbid fear of germs and his early obsession with peas and sorting them by size.
Although Hughes had suffered mood swings and obsessions as a younger man, following his near-fatal plane crash in 1946 the symptoms seemed to get worse. In 1947, he refused to leave his screening room for four months, living entirely on milk, chocolate and chicken and relieving himself in the empty containers. He gave orders for his aides not to speak to him unless he specifically asked them to.
Towards the end of his life, Hughes’s condition worsened, and the former womanizer began to shun all social contact. At the time of his death from kidney failure, his beard and fingernails had both grown out of control (maybe due to his aversion to being touched) making him practically unrecognizable. He also suffered from malnutrition and reportedly had a body weight of just 90 pounds.