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Was Mary Todd Lincoln Driven Mad by a B12 Deficiency?

Was Mary Todd Lincoln Driven Mad by a B12 Deficiency?

Mary Todd Lincoln, first lady to President Abraham Lincoln, is well-known for her crabby moods, paranoia, violent temper, and wild shopping sprees.  Elegant and cultured most of the time, she had repeated episodes that, in the language of the day, could only be described as “mad”. At one point, she was committed to a mental hospital at her son’s urging.  While it is clear that she had some kind of mental health issue, exactly what has been a subject for speculation.


Dr. John G. Sotos, cardiologist and medical technical consultant for TV’s award-winning House, has recently published research suggesting that Mary Todd Lincoln may have been afflicted by pernicious anemia.  As he researched his book on Abraham Lincoln’s physical signs of encroaching cancer, he came across a letter noting that Mary had a sore mouth, which can signal a vitamin B12 deficiency.


Mary’s Symptoms

Her symptoms: fatigue, lightheadedness, sore mouth, fevers, headaches, pallor, swelling and puffiness in her hands and face, irritability, delusion, and hallucinations, match the common symptoms of pernicious anemia.  Her parents were cousins from a part of Scotland where pernicious anemia was found in the 1960s to be unusually common. And her stocky physique, wide face, wide jaw, and wide-set eyes are characteristics common to people born with the disease, says Dr. Sotos.


Historians can only speculate about the mysterious cause of Mary Todd Lincoln’s illness. But Dr. Christopher Crenner, Chair of the Department of Philosophy and History of Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center, calls Dr. Sotos’ work, “ingenious, meticulously researched and argued,” and medically plausible.


Dr. Sotos urges us now to look on her with compassion.  Modern medicine illuminates so much in physical and mental health, but back in the 19th century, the life-saving information we now take for granted was yet undiscovered.


B12 Supplements Cure Pernicious Anemia

Pernicious anemia is a nasty illness that was deadly until the discovery that it could be treated with vitamin B12 supplements and shots.  It manifests most commonly these days in adults over 60, though some rare people are born with it. Blood tests can catch B12 deficiency before it gets anything close to Mary Todd Lincoln’s level, so check with your physician if you or someone you know has similar symptoms.


B12’s Vital Functions

Vitamin B12 affects nearly every cell in the body. B12 works with other B vitamins, especially B6 and B9 (folate), in many of its processes.


Needed to make DNA, red blood cells, and SAM-e (a compound involved in immune function and mood)

Supports normal function of nerve cells (promoting positive moods)

Helps the body use fats and proteins for energy

Regulates levels of homocysteine (a well-known marker of heart disease)


Fast Facts: B vitamins burn up quickly under stress so if you’re feeling a little less than optimal don’t forget your B vitamins.  And don’t worry about taking too much because B vitamins are water soluble, meaning that any excess gets flushed out through the kidneys rather than allowed to build up in the body.