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Seizures among public figures: lessons learned from the epilepsy of Pope Pius IX
The Modest Poster
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User ID: 433612
01-23-2021 09:25 PM

Posts: 9,804

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Seizures among public figures: lessons learned from the epilepsy of Pope Pius IX
Seizures among public figures: lessons learned from the epilepsy of Pope Pius IX


Did Pius IX Have Epilepsy?

All 3 epileptologists concurred that Pius IX likely had epilepsy. All documentation (including quotations from Pius IX himself) state that he had epilepsy as a child and young adult. No source contradicts this issue. Pius IX himself proclaimed that, after a pilgrimage to Loreto, Italy, in 1819 to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Loreto, he considered himself cured of his epilepsy.7, 13, 15 However, some evidence suggests that he had recurring seizures in his later life. The following 2 quotations illustrate the epilepsy of Pius IX.

One morning in the study hall, a giddiness seized Pius. It came in stronger waves. He stood up at the side of his desk, gave a half inarticulate cry and fell into a fiery blackness. When he awoke he felt calm and quiet. He did not know what had happened to him, he was in a small infirmary and all the people were gathered around him.21

What Type of Epilepsy Did Pius IX Have?

Pius IX likely had partial epilepsy of a temporal lobe focus with secondarily generalized seizures. This diagnosis is characterized by repeated seizures and focal cortical neurological lesions. Moreover, patients with partial epilepsy are more likely to report memory disturbances and other cognitive difficulties. The evidence for Pius IX's epilepsy is based on observations of his appearance throughout his lifetime as well as his own report of the effect epilepsy had on his thoughts. The following passage suggests the typical sequelae of partial epilepsy, including cognitive difficulties: “In the same year, he wrote to the Pope: owing to the fact of his epilepsy, he had a very weak memory and could not concentrate on any subject for any length of time without having to worry about having his ideas getting terribly confused.”12, 23, 24
What Could Have Caused Pius IX's Epilepsy?

Two important findings in Pius IX's history are likely responsible for his epilepsy. First, he had a traumatic near-drowning event as a young child, which several sources cite as having contributed to his epilepsy.7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15 A near-drowning event could lead to a global CNS hypoxia. Second, he likely had a CNS lesion from some developmental process, as evidenced by an asymmetry in photos of Pius IX's face that was apparent to all 3 epileptologists (Figure 1). Asymmetry affecting the lower half of the face suggests an upper motor neuron lesion of the 7th cranial nerve, which would be consistent with a focal lesion often seen among patients with partial epilepsy.29 Pius IX was the youngest of 9 siblings, none of whom were reported to have had epilepsy, making it less likely that there was a generalized inherited condition. Suggestions of the traumatic events are demonstrated in the following passage: “As a youth in Italy, Pius IX annually went to visit his mother at the Shrine of Our Lady of Loreto. When he was small he fell into a stream after which he was frequently tortured with fatigue and fever. The doctors were never able to pinpoint the cause.”7 Developmental anomalies are evident based on the following quotation:

The vestiges of epilepsy were clearly visible. Pius IX's body was slightly less developed on the left. This could be seen even in the face, which was asymmetric with lips awry and a head that inclined to the right. The subject was considered highly impressionable, capricious, impulsive, and unpredictable. These characteristics were all attributed to epilepsy.27

Did Epilepsy Affect Pius IX's Choice of Career?

Epilepsy greatly influenced Pius IX's career. Because of his seizures, Pius IX's goal of becoming a Papal Noble Guard was abandoned. As a result, he entered into the priesthood, leading him to the pathway of church leadership. Interestingly, Pius IX had to be decreed seizure free before he could be anointed a priest. On November 4, 1818, the Bishop of Sinigaglia (what is now Senigallia) produced a report of the candidacy of the future Pius IX for potential priesthood.13 He wrote: “To my knowledge he no longer suffers from the epileptic attacks to which he was subject in his more tender years. I am sure that it is many months since he had a single attack of this malady.”13

Pius VII agreed, on condition that in the future, as a priest, Pius IX would celebrate Mass only with the assistance of a deacon or another priest.13 Seizures were documented at several times in Pius IX's life (Figure 2). The following quotation suggests how epilepsy led Pius to a career in the Church:

The epileptic attacks continued to affect Pius IX. In February of 1812 he was found in a state of collapse, foaming at the mouth at the entrance of the family's mansion. It was the epilepsy that excused the individual from military service. Pius' request to enter the Noble Guard was real, and the epileptic attacks [appeared] to become much rarer.13
(This post was last modified: 01-23-2021 09:27 PM by The Modest Poster.) Quote this message in a reply

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