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Seven score and two years later, Lincoln’s facial defects revealed

142 years after his death, researchers analyzed his facial characteristics.
Monday, August 20, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:34 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

While delivering his most famous speech, Abraham Lincoln asserted that all men are created equal. But according to recent research, perhaps not all men, our nation’s 16th president included, were blessed with equal levels of health.

Our nation’s 16th president may have had some previously undiagnosed health conditions that Columbia doctors say could have been fixed had Lincoln lived a century later.

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Retired ophthalmologist and history fan Ronald Fishman evaluated two plaster casts of Lincoln’s face to analyze his facial characteristics. Fishman’s research, published in the August issue of the Archives of Ophthalmology, used laser scans of the masks to show that Lincoln had what now is known today as cranial facial microsomia.

The sporadic drifting of his right eye, noted by Lincoln’s contemporaries, was most likely caused by strabismus, a possible result of facial microsomia.

The findings provide evidence for why Lincoln’s photographs and portraits mainly show his right profile — as is the case with the penny. Lincoln was kicked in the head by a horse as a young child, though it is unclear from the laser scans whether this, or an inherent developmental defect, contributed to his condition.

Cranial facial microsomia is an ailment that occurs in one out of 5,500 newborns, making it one of the most common head deformities. In Lincoln’s case, the left side of his face was smaller than the right.

Arshad Muzaffar, a surgeon at MU’s Children’s Hospital, had not noticed effects of the disease in pictures he had previously seen of Lincoln, though said the disease is fairly common and can affect “the skull and sutures or joints between the cranial bones.”

Surgery to treat the condition can be complex and is often done once the patient is several years old.

“Treatment is surgical, and what you have to treat basically includes repairing the cheekbone, reconstructing the jaw, reconstructing the ear, reconstructing the orbit, and often reconstructing the soft tissue,” Muzaffar said.

Strabismus, commonly known as a lazy eye, is a condition in which both eyes cannot be aligned simultaneously.

“In Lincoln’s case, his eyes deviated out,” said William Kaufold of the Mason Eye Institute in Columbia.

Historians say Lincoln’s appearance was often the subject of ridicule and was critiqued by his friends and political enemies alike.

“He was not a pretty man by any means,” wrote Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon in “Herndon’s Lincoln.”

“Mr. Lincoln’s head was long and tall ... and his forehead was narrow but high. His ears were extremely large and ran out at almost right angles from his head. ... His cheek bones were high — sharp and prominent.”

Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of Mount Rushmore and a Lincoln admirer, noticed the asymmetry of Lincoln’s face, though he did not make an attempt to explain it. He described Lincoln’s left eye as “wide open” and out of focus, “indecisive,” “noncommittal and dreamy.”

The two face masks used in the study, one from before Lincoln’s first presidential campaign in 1860, and one from two months before his assassination in 1865, were most likely made for political purposes. Facial masks were a common practice of the time, according to James Cornelius, curator at the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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