lincoln portrait Young Lincoln portrait

An Analytical Biography of a Great Mind- by Edward J. Kempf

hereditary determination

Lincoln's unusual bodily and personal characteristics, particularly his long legs and arms relative to a torso of average length, his large hands, long fingers and flat feet, narrow stooped shoulders and misshapen chest, the longish dimensions of his face and upward deviation (hyperphoria) of left eye,* melancholy disposition and relaxed social attitude, have long been taken, in the medical sciences, as associated characters indicating an unusual hereditary (genic) and congenital and later environmental determination.

As in the growth of any unicellular or multicellular organism, the biological question is, what bodily characters are hereditary and what characters are acquired from environmental nutritional and stressing energic effects on growth. Each gene in an hereditary chromosomal complement produces highly specific enzymatic action on the cytoplasmic differentiation of cells and on the growth of tissues and organs, and the effects of these specific actions are qualified by allied and antagonistic actions of many other genes. Moreover, as cells must work to maintain equilibrating cytoplasmic interactions with other cells of their bodily environmental and with external environmental energies, the specific cytoplasmic qualitative genic effects become differentiated by environmental action in quantities, ratios, timing and positions, throughout embryonic and postnatal development. As the specific effects of any form of hereditary determination vary more or less in each organism at different ages in interaction with other genic determinants and with its environmental energies, inferences of hereditary effects in Lincoln's case must include environmental modifications of these effects.

Upon finding "a classic example of the Marfan syndrome" in a male (7 to 11 years of age) in Lincoln's lineage, Schwartz (1964) compared measurements of his subject's hands and head with Lincoln's as taken from casts and photographs and descriptions of his bodily and personal characteristics by contemporaries, particularly Herndon, and assumed that Lincoln likewise had a similar syndrome "derived from an ancestor common to both individuals." The last ancestor in common was Mordecai Lincoln 11, born in Massachusetts in 1686. He was the fourth antecedent (great-great-grandfather) of Abraham Lincoln by his first wife, and the eighth antecedent of the Marfan boy by a male line of descendents from a second wife. The transmission of a special autosomal genic mutation has been assumed to have been repeated through four generations of four male and four female antecedents of Lincoln in one line, and eight generations of eight male and eight female antecedents of a distant relative in another line. As genic mutations may arise in reproduction of the germ plasm sperm and ova of one generation, and be transmitted, modified, or eliminated by chance in crossing in the next, the assumption of a genic determination common to both individuals, as the basic factor producing assumed similarities of body growth is questionable.

The Marfan syndrome was first described by A. B. Marfan in 1896, as a set of bodily and personal characteristics, defined now (American Medical Dictionary) as "a congenital and hereditary condition characterized by arachnodactyly with bilateral ectopia lentis," meaning long, thin, spiderlike fingers and toes and tendency to pathological displacement of the lens of both eyes, leading to reduction of vision and eventual blindness. As the effects attributed to a Marfan mutation vary greatly in individuals of the same pedigree and immediate family, the formerly limited syndrome has been enlarged to include other abnormal bodily and personal characteristics. The mutation seems to produce the growth of distrophic, inelastic connective tissue which is attended by long thin growth of arms, legs and ribs, with tendency to deformation of the sternum making a bulging "pigeon" breast or a concave breast with malposition of lungs and heart, flabby skin with little subcutaneous fat, loose joints, hernia, arterial aneurism, and, generally, an apathetic, listless, doleful personality with weak mental integrity and social indifference. Gothic palate and myopia, hyperopia, strabismus, and tendency to glaucoma have recently been included in the syndrome by some observers. Death follows frequently in youth from respiratory or cardiac disease or, later, from rupture of an aneurism. As an intellectually superior mind and socially active disposition with normal eyes have been observed in otherwise typical cases of long, thin body growth; and low energy, myopia and other anomalies appear in short thick persons of the same family; such opposite characters have been assumed by some medical geneticists to be variations of the effects of the same mutation.

A.M. Gordon (1962) described a case of Marfan's syndrome in a young male, and compared such bodily characteristics with Lincoln's. He chose to attribute the latter to an hereditary genic determination transmitted by his mother, Nancy Hanks, as she had a long thin body seemingly more like the Marfan type although she was socially energetic and intelligent, whereas his father, Tom, who had a average short, thick, powerful physique, was lazy, ill-tempered and unintelligent.

Schwartz and Gordon have both freely interpreted Herndon's description of Lincoln's bones, particularly of his arms, legs and hands and head and face, as being long and thin and characteristic of Marfan genic determination, whereas Herndon described him as being "thin, wirey, sinewy, raw and heavy boned." Neither Schwartz or Gordon has given due consideration to comparative anthropological measurements and environmental modifications of Lincoln's physique.

H.L. Shapiro (1953), Chairman of the Department of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, has pointed out that "the tall, gaunt figure [of Abraham Lincoln], with its cadaverous face" was of "the type" now recognized in anthropology as "the Southern Mountaineer." Lincoln, he said, was perhaps "more the product of the Kentucky Hills where he was born and of the people that first settled there than we realize."

Shapiro made a series of significant measurements from a bronze cast of a life mask of Lincoln taken in 1865, on his 56th birthday, by Clark Mills. Comparison of these measurements with a composite of measurements of 272 skulls of "Old Americans" of comparable native origin led Shapiro to a number of significant inferences. He found that Lincoln's height was seven and one-half inches above this average and his face was "exceedingly wide at the cheekbones" and his jaw was "rarely matched in width," his forehead was high, wide and sloping and the face above the mouth was long and the nose long but wide, and the mouth wide. The unusual width of the jaw so overbalanced that of the forehead that the latter seemed to be narrow. Shapiro said that "some of Herndon's observations were sound" but he "was wrong" in describing Lincoln's forehead as "narrow." "Among the racial strains to be found in Lincoln's geography," he said, "one could match these dimensions easily only among Indians." The American ancestry of Lincoln includes English, Scotch and probably Dutch, and they have undergone a marked increase in height in successive generations in the Appalachian country, Shapiro said. Particularly in Kentucky where Lincoln was born, and in Tennessee, unusually tall, lanky, powerful men like Lincoln and the Enloes and Brownfields were so common that the type has become established in anthropology and in the public mind as typical of the mountains of the limestone country.

Schwartz has presented an interesting chart of an "inferential pedigree" of the male line of antecedents and descendents of Lincoln and of his Marfan relative. It includes a number of males and a female who seem to have had some anomalous physical condition that might be assumed, regardless of long-thin or short-thick physiques, as possibly to have been a more or less vigorous or submerged effect of a Marfan mutation.

In Lincoln's case, Schwartz has included the unusual length of his arms and legs relative to the torso, unusual length of the fingers relative to the breadth of the hands, with anomaly of the fingers of the left hand being longer than the right whereas the right thumb was longer than the left. He also emphasized the leathery skin with little subcutaneous fat, protruding ears, asymmetrical differences in growth of the bones of the right and left sides of his face, hyperopia. and strabismus of the left eye, as possible Marfan characters.

Asymmetrical differences in growth of bilateral organs are not infrequent in the Marfan syndrome but this does not permit the geneticist to attribute them entirely to genic determination. Possible effects of special environmental stresses must be included. Lincoln, from early youth throughout his physical development, chopped wood with a heavy axe daily for many hours, and in such occupation the left hand in a right handed person carries more stress and does more work than the right hand. Whereas Marfans are usually long thin-boned and muscularly weak and mentally dull, socially withdrawn and apathetic, Lincoln, as a boy and man, had unusually heavy, long bones, powerful arms, legs, hands and back, large head and face, and an intelligently active mind with endless drive at self-education and improvement toward giving social service.

An environmental cause of the asymmetrical development of the right and left bones of Lincoln's face and the subnormal neuromuscular tonus of the left side, and hyperphoria of the left eye, his melancholy disposition and euphoric compensation will be shown later in this and other chapters to have followed after the accidental fracture of his skull and probable injury of his brain in childhood.*

Lincoln's face gave evidence of unusual hereditary genetic predispositions in its embryonic development, hence in the later development of his brain and personality. The creases in the skin of the human face are produced principally by the activities of the facial muscles with attachments to the skin. In most faces, the creases that run on each side from the nose continue around the upper lip and back of the corners of the mouth, and then pass more or less distinctly around the lower lip and under the chin. In Lincoln's face, as shown by two life masks and photographs, the creases on each side of the nose run halfway around the upper lip and then turn sharply backward, above the corners of the mouth. Here they join deep creases that run downward in front of the cheekbones, between the muscles of the cheek and the muscles of the mouth, and then curve forward to pass under the chin where they meet, giving the mouth and chin strong expression. The expressive effect of this unusual, though not rare, type of facial creasing was enhanced by the unusual length and breadth of his face.

A second cousin, David Lincoln, had facial creases similar to those of Abraham. Also a third cousin, Jonas Basham, whose grandmother, Mimi Hanks, was a first cousin of Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks, inherited facial creases remarkably similar to those of Abraham Lincoln, indicating maternal as well as paternal hereditary factors for this unusual characteristic.

Three genetic moles, one on the right side and two on the left side of the face, gave, in relation to these creases, a distinguishing quality to Lincoln's face which, once seen, was not likely to be forgotten, and was, therefore, socially and politically invaluable. The largest and most prominent mole was located on the right side, just above the crease as it turns backward from the upper lip to join the crease lying between the muscles of mastication and the mouth. The mole actually divided the crease producing a perpetually dimpled, smiling effect on that side of the face. On the left side of the face, one of the other two moles lies on the cheek above the crease where it turns backward from the upper lip, and the other lies lower down on the side of the face, in back of the crease, after it joins the mouth muscle-cheek muscle crease. Their positions in relation to the right mole indicate that early in embryonic development, when the head was very small and the face was beginning to form, the right and left moles appeared in symmetrically opposite positions. If so, one later became divided and the two parts separated progressively as the muscles and bones of the face enlarged.

Although the psychological effect of these facial characteristics is now unknowable, they gave his face a ready-to-smile set and an unusually comical quality that surely must have reinforced the development of his great sense of humor and propensity for laughing. They probably also combined with other unusual, inherited and acquired facial and bodily qualities, in reinforcing the formation, in his boyhood, of the conviction that he was an unusual person, predestined to perform some great mission to be revealed to him, that developed later into his unique, fixed lifelong, humanitarian inspiration and compulsion.

When an adult, his hair was coarse and black, and his eyes were small, gray, and deeply set. His ears were large, thick-lobed, and extended out at almost right angles to his head. His usually long and generally disheveled hair hid this grotesque, comical inferiority. His nose was not relatively oversized, but it looked large because of his thin face. The nostrils did not extend as far into the tip of the nose as in most people, which made the end look heavy. Lincoln was said, when young, to have been somewhat sensitive about his nose, but not about his ears.

* Dr. Frechette's emphasis
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