By Sam Kean (Guest Contributor)
Ironically enough, the first noted lexicographer of the English language, Samuel Johnson, lost the ability to speak late in life. Like most people with aphasia, the neurological loss of speech, Johnson’s troubles arose after brain damage—in his case a stroke at around 3 a.m. on June 17th, 1783, while he was lying in bed in his Fleet Street home. Terrifyingly, Johnson woke up knowing what was happening—that something had gone awry in his brain—but he felt weak and tired and couldn’t do anything about it anyway. He had no choice but to lie there in the dark until morning, praying that his mental faculties weren’t disintegrating second by second.
Being Samuel Johnson, he devised an odd test for himself to bide the time: he composed (mentally) a quatrain in Latin, in which he asked the Lord to spare his intellect and reason—intellect and reason being the things he cared about most in life. It read:
Summe Pater, quodcunque tuum de corpore Numen
Hoc statuat, precibus Christus adesse velit;
Ingenio parcas, nec sit mihi culpa rogasse,
Qua solum potero parte, placere tibi.
(Translation: Almighty Father, whatever the Divine Will ordains concerning this body of mine, may Christ be willing to aid me with his prayers. And let it not be blameworthy on my part to implore that Thou spare my reason, by which faculty alone I shall be able to do Thy pleasure.)
Johnson wasn’t happy with his quatrain—a mediocre effort, he judged. But he took the fact that he could still compose verse—and especially the fact that he knew it was mediocre—as signs that God had spared his mind after all. (Over the next few weeks Johnson nevertheless seemed peeved with his maker about the whole incident, opening letters to friends with lines like, “Dear Sir: It has pleased God by a paralytick stroke in the night to deprive me of speech.”)
The Bigger Picture: Aphasia and Tourette Syndrome
Aphasia wasn’t the only neurological disorder Johnson suffered from. He almost certainly had Tourette syndrome and a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder as well. Symptoms of the former include his restless tics and repetitive gestures and his habit of making odd noises. Boswell records in Life of Samuel Johnson how Johnson “held his head to one side towards his right shoulder, and shook it in a tremulous manner, moving his body backwards and forwards, and rubbing his left knee in the same direction, with the palm of his hand. In the intervals of articulating he made various sounds with his mouth; sometimes giving a half whistle, sometimes making his tongue play backwards from the roof of his mouth, as if clucking like a hen.” Symptoms of mild OCD include his habit of collecting orange peels and his need to touch all the lampposts he passed during his strolls around London; if he missed one, “he would go back miles upon his way to repair an omission,” Boswell says.
But in some sense, those neurological “disorders” helped make Johnson who he was. A touch of OCD isn’t a bad thing in someone putting together a dictionary. As for Tourette syndrome, neurologists Oliver Sacks has observed, “One cannot avoid thinking that [Johnson’s] enormous spontaneity, antics, and lightning quick wit had an organic connection with his accelerated motor impulsive state.” Indeed, although he’s remembered as a translator and lexicographer (which Johnson famously defined as a “harmless drudge”), Johnson’s true métier was conversation, and without Boswell to chronicle all his one-offs and bon mots, few people would have heard of Johnson today.
And that’s what made the aphasia so cruel—it deprived Johnson of his greatest artistic medium. In fact, although he bragged in letters to friends of beating the stroke (which he called a palsy), in reality he lived only eighteen months afterward, and he struggled to speak for much of that time. His letters were notably different after his stroke as well: he made more mistakes and stopped using semicolons for some reason.
Still, even those late letters remain models of English prose, which in the end is probably the most remarkable thing about Johnson’s stroke. Because while his eloquence did diminish afterward, he remained far more articulate than your average schmo, since he started off on a much higher level. What seems like the same exact brain damage, then, will always affect two people differently, and deficits like aphasia are always relative.
Sam Kean is the New York Times bestselling author of The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb. His new book, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, was released in May. He and his work have also been featured on NPR’s “Radiolab,” “All Things Considered,” and “Fresh Air.”