The History of OCD

The incidence of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), or  Obsessive Compulsive Neurosis as it was once known, is a relatively common disorder and can be traced historically, cross-culturally and across a broad social spectrum and does not appear to restrict itself to any specific group of individuals. On the contrary, increased availability of information shows numerous examples of OCD, and its occurrence in the lives of various well-known figures throughout the ages.

Martin Luther (10 November 1483 – 18 February 1546) was a German priest and professor of theology who initiated the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther (1483-1546), the first and most important leader of the Protestant Reformation in Europe suffered from OCD. Luther's protégé, Philip Melanchthon wrote that often when contemplating the wrath of God he would repeatedly mingle with his prayers and went on to claim. “That these terrors he experienced either for the first time, or in the most acute manner, during the year in which he was deprived of a favourite friend, who lost his life by some accident of which I am ignorant.”

John Bunyan (28 November 1628 – 31 August 1688) was an English Christian writer and preacher, famous for writing Pilgrim's Progress.

John Bunyan (1628-1688) is also believed to have suffered with OCD. The writer and preacher, famous for writing Pilgrim's Progress, suffered unwanted intrusive thoughts of a blasphemous nature. He gave a vivid account of these in his autobiographical book ‘Grace abounding to the chief of sinners’ published in 1666. One of his great fears was that instead of words of praise, he might betray God and utter terrible and blasphemous accusations against him.

Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 – 13 December 1784), often referred to as Dr Johnson, was a British author who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer.

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), accredited with compiling the first dictionary of the English language, suffered from a compulsion of ‘odd movements’ as described by a friend, writing some 225 years ago.  Johnson would perform highly ritualised movements and antics when passing over the threshold of a door.  Just before crossing the threshold, he would whirl, twist, make highly ritualised hand motions and then jump over the threshold in a long leap.  He would never step on cracks between paving stones.  When he went for a walk, he touched every post he passed.  If he missed one, he went back to touch it. In a prayer accredited to Dr Johnson from 1766 he wrote 'O God, grant me repentance, grant me reformation. Grant that I may be no longer disturbed with doubts and harassed with vain terrors.'

Charles Robert Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882) was an English naturalist. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestry, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection.

Eminent evolutionist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is now also widely accepted to have suffered from OCD.  Darwin wrote about various obsessional thoughts and how he could not get away from them. In a letter to a friend he wrote 'I could not sleep and whatever I did in the day haunted me at night with vivid and most wearing repetition'. The thoughts, as he himself put it, were of 'horrid spectacle' including thoughts that his children would inherit his kind of illness and to stop them he would try 'closing his eyes firmly' but they would not go away. The bad thoughts during the night were more persistent than those in the day, because at night he was not distracted from them by activity.  Darwin also craved reassurance from others and was self critical and also felt himself to be ugly and would repeat himself hundreds of times the mantra 'I have worked as hard as I could, and no man can do more than this'.

Howard Robard Hughes. (September 24, 1905 – April 5, 1976) was an American aviator, engineer, industrialist, film producer, film director, philanthropist, and one of the wealthiest people in the world. He gained prominence from the late 1920s as a maverick film producer, making big-budget and often controversial films like Hell's Angels, Scarface and The Outlaw. Hughes was one of the most influential aviators in history: he set multiple world air-speed records, built the Hughes H-1 Racer and H-4 'Hercules' (better known to history as the 'Spruce Goose') aircraft, and acquired and expanded Trans World Airlines. Hughes is also remembered for his eccentric behavior and reclusive lifestyle in later life, caused in part by a worsening OCD.

Perhaps the most famous person known to have suffered with OCD in more recent times was the twentieth century American aviator, engineer, industrialist, film producer, film director, philanthropist, and one of the wealthiest people in the world, Howard Hughes (1905 -1976) whose story was told in the 2004 film, ‘The Aviator’, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. In spite of his immeasurable financial wealth, he spent his final days both mentally and physically incarcerated by his own contamination terrors and elaborate cleaning rituals.

Katharine Hepburn (May 12, 1907 – June 29, 2003) was an American actress of film, stage, and television.

Although there is no real evidence to suggest that one of Hughes leading ladies, Katherine Hepburn, had OCD, Howard Hughes was once reported to have said “that, for a woman who takes 18 showers a day, she was in no position to ridicule his obsessions!”.

There are of course many well known living celebrities that have in recent years been reported to be suffering from the illness, or taken up the growing trend of claiming to be a ‘bit OCD’.  Many of these claims can not be verified with any degree of accuracy as to a diagnosis.  Whilst we can not see what goes on behind closed doors, or in a person’s mind, it is fair to say that there is a huge difference between obsessive quirks, that rarely cause distress or anxiety and which do not warrant a diagnosis of OCD, compared to the distressing and unwanted experience of obsessions and compulsions that impact significantly upon a person’s everyday functioning, and can  leave a person totally debilitated for hours at a time - real OCD.

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