7 Famous Historical Figures with Bipolar

Last Updated: 11 Feb 2022
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Some of history’s greatest profiles include people who also lived with the hallmarks of bipolar disorder—impulsivity, creative thinking, deep emotions, sustained periods of high energy, and deep depressions.


History abounds with stories of creative, complicated, and ground-breaking individuals who toiled hard and thought about things differently. People who struggled, failed, tried again, and found success. People whose life stories are as rich and varied as we could imagine…. People who are believed to have lived with mental health conditions like bipolar disorder.

Of course, a person cannot be diagnosed with bipolar long after they have passed. Even today, attaining a diagnosis is often a lengthy process; it takes an average of 8–10 years before a person is properly diagnosed and can begin the search for effective treatment options.

So, we cannot say beyond the shadow of a doubt that the following luminaries lived with this brain-based mood disorder. However, the evidence they have left behind—their writings, relationships, art, and achievements—suggests that it is certainly a possibility.

#1 Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961)

The Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize–winning writer was known not only for his concise prose but also for his volatility. During his life, Hemingway grappled with episodes of severe depression, dark thoughts, relationship turmoil, physical aggression, fatigue, memory loss, alcohol use, intense competitiveness, and paranoia.

“Papa” also penned some of the most highly regarded works of American literature, such as The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea.

Scholars disagree over the most appropriate assessment of Hemingway’s potential mental health diagnoses, with some finding evidence of bipolar disorder and others linking his struggles to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

#2 Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (1858–1919)

The iconic American statesman, author, soldier, explorer, and reformer is suspected to have lived with bipolar I disorder. Renowned clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, PhD, said the 26th president “came into the world a full-blown exuberant.”

In her book Exuberance, Jamison connects Teddy Roosevelt’s enthusiasm and risk-taking with his achievements and holds that “individuals who sought the new, who took risks that others would not, or who rebelled against repressive social systems” might be more likely to seek—and find—success in America.

Regarding Roosevelt specifically, in a 2002 talk, Jamison characterized him as “hypomanic on a mild day,” noting that “he wrote 40 books, and read a book a day, even as president. He also went into an extended depression that saw him reinvent himself as a cowboy.”

#3 Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)

Author of Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf was an influential, brave, and insightful English writer and critic. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Manic Depression and the Life of Virginia Woolf, psychologist Peter Dally describes how the talented novelist and essayist struggled: “Virginia’s need to write was … to make sense out of mental chaos and gain control of madness,” he says.

Woolf became an icon of the 1970s American feminist movement, and her life, works, and difficulties with symptoms now recognized as characteristic of bipolar disorder continue to inspire creative minds today.

#4 Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)

The famed English poet best known for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan was one of the founders of Romanticism, and his critical analysis of such luminaries as William Shakespeare influenced later literary criticism. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is believed to have lived with bipolar disorder, and his struggles with anxiety, depression, poor physical health, and substance use (opium) are well documented.

#5 Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)

The renowned painter Vincent Van Gogh created iconic works such as The Starry Night and Sunflowers, which are recognized the world over. Van Gogh was known as a passionate intellectual who experienced episodes of high energy and severe depression, especially during the final years of his life—although his creative works remained a central focus throughout his lifetime. Although the Dutch Impressionist died before his masterpieces were regarded as such, he remains a highly influential artistic figure to this day.

#6 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

The German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven remains one of the most well-known and respected composers of all time, and his symphonies are among the most regularly performed works of classical music. Beethoven is known to have grappled with increasing deafness, and he might have lived with bipolar as well. (Although, of course, the diagnosis did not exist as such during his lifetime.)

After showing advanced musical skills at an early age, he published his first work in early adolescence and later went on to create over 700 compositions. Beethoven’s influence throughout history is shown not only by his music’s continued fame but also by the many events that are held in his honor and the museums and monuments that bear his name—not to mention the third-largest crater on Mercury.

#7 Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848)

Gaetano Donizetti, like Beethoven, was also recognized for his musical talents at an early age. Although he was not born into a wealthy family, he was admitted to a school founded to train singers and instrumentalists. Whereas most boys had to leave the school once their voices broke, Donizetti was able to continue his education there due to the school’s director, who fought for and recognized his profound talent.

Donizetti rose to international fame as an Italian composer on account of his expressive bel canto operas, and today he is considered the most significant composer of Italian opera after the death of Bellini and until Verdi. Among his approximately 75 operas, his most famous compositions include the tragedy Lucia di Lammermoor and the comedy L’elisir d’amore.


Originally posted December 13, 2021

About the author
Jade Zora Scibilia is the in-house editor of bp Magazine and esperanza. She was formerly the managing editor at Prometheus Books and the senior editor of Seventh Street Books and Pyr. She is also the author of two nonfiction children’s books.

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