Writers and their Illnesses: Samuel Johnson
Varsity, The Independent Cambridge Student Newspaper since 1947
by Emily Smith
30th September 2011

Samuel Johnson.

Given he found fame by compiling the first comprehensive English dictionary, it might seem ironic that Johnson almost certainly suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome – a condition that is associated in many people’s minds with inappropriate use of expletives. Contrary to popular belief, however, this symptom (colprolalia) is actually quite rare in Tourette’s sufferers. Johnson is not documented as having suffered from uncontrollable swearing; in fact, his biographer James Boswell describes one of his vocal ‘tics’ as “frequently uttering pious ejaculations”, such as fragments of the Lord’s Prayer. Such vocal tics, together with motor tics (repetitive movements such as mouth opening or head nodding), form part of the modern-day diagnostic criteria for the condition, as defined in the psychiatrist’s handbook, DSM-IV.

Johnson never wrote about his condition, but this has not stopped others from speculating about its effects on his life. Accounts by contemporaries, such as Alexander Pope, suggest that Tourette’s prevented his employment as a headmaster, because it was believed that his tics would be too distracting to pupils. One of his modern biographers, Robert DeMaria, argues that it was negative attitudes such as these that led him to prefer the more solitary occupation of writing. Moreover, neuroscientist Oliver Sacks claims that Johnson is an example of a subgroup of Tourette’s sufferers who are highly creative as a result of their condition.

Without Johnson’s own testimony, we can never be sure how far his condition impacted on his life and writing. However, Johnson is certainly an example of someone who was able to turn misfortune into an opportunity – perhaps aided by the flair his Tourette’s also gave him.

In honour of Johnson’s love of defining words, here is a brief Tourette’s glossary:

Coprolalia – uncontrollable swearing

DSM-IV – the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, which is a commonly used set of diagnostic criteria for psychiatric conditions

Echolalia – repetition of other people’s words

Echopraxia – repetition of other people’s actions

Palilalia – repetition of one’s own words