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Everybody knows a hypochondriac, obsessed with health and illness. Few admit to being one.

But history is littered with great thinkers and artists who were morbidly obsessed with dysfunction and disease. Moliere, Kant, Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas Mann all wrote of the syndrome. Charles Darwin, Andy Warhol, Charlotte Bronte, Glenn Gould all had it. Maybe Michael Jackson and Woody Allen, too.

In the era of the “worried well,” we may all have a touch. This hour, On Point: illness, imagination, and tales of the eminent hypochondriacs.

Plus, later this hour, we’ll remember the people’s historian, Howard Zinn.


Joining us from Tunbridge Wells, England, is Brian Dillon, author of “The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives.” Dillon’s first book, “In the Dark Room,” won the 2006 Irish Book Award for nonfiction. He is UK Editor for Cabinet, an arts and culture quarterly, and a research fellow at the University of Kent.

Read an excerpt from “The Hypochondriacs.”

Remembering Howard Zinn

Later this hour, we look back at groundbreaking American historian Howard Zinn, dead at 87. Zinn, author of “A People’s History of the United States,” died of a heart attack yesterday in Santa Monica, California. An icon of the left, he turned the standard American historical narrative on its head — elevating the voices of workers, feminists, and war protesters. 

Joining us from Princeton, New Jersey, is Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He’s the author most recently of “Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security — From World War II to the War on Terrorism.” 

Zinn had twice been a guest on our show. In 2002, he discussed the war on terror in its early days.  And in 2006, as war raged on in Iraq, Zinn joined us to discuss the futility of war.

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  • willa

    Charlotte Bronte watched her mother die of cancer and all five of her siblings succumb to ghastly deaths from tuberculosis. None reached 40. Charlotte herself died at 39,possibly from tuberculosis, typhus, or complications from pregnancy. Life expectancy in Haworth in 1850 was 24. Can anyone call Charlotte a “hypochondriac”?

  • http://abcdeology.com Nate

    Hypochondriac by Chris Tusa
    Maybe it’s Emphysema, a shiny black jewel of phlegm
    humming like a clump of bees in my chest.
    Perhaps a tumor crawling in the crook of my armpit,
    a blood clot opening like a tiny red flower in my brain.

    Maybe it’s too early to show up on an X-ray,
    a kind of cancerous seed planted deep
    in my intestine, something like Leukemia’s ghost
    haunting my hollow bones.

    The doctor says I’m fine.

    But even now, deep in the dark holes of my eyes
    I can feel the cataracts spinning their silver webs.
    Even now, in the bony cage of my lungs
    I can feel the heart attack’s prologue,
    the opening words of some prolific pain
    like a bird stabbing its incessant beak
    into the ripe red meat of my heart.

  • Peter Torrey

    Hi Tom,

    Where does Chronic Fatigue and Fibromyalgia fit in to the discussion? Are these conditions related? Does Brian consider these a form of hypochondria?


  • Cody Howard

    It seems to me hypochondria is partly caused by awareness of various illnesses or ailments. Many of the famous individuals who have been mentioned in this segment seem as though they may of had a higher awareness of the different ailments of their time than the average person. Was this considered when the book was written?

  • Flavia

    As to our modern day rampant hypochondria – aren’t we being led by the nose into this by modern medical, insurance and pharmaceutical practices? The more fearful and worried we are over every little twinge, the better for all their bottom lines?

  • Maria

    I am really hoping that you will have a professional psychologist or psychiatrist on the show, because there is alot of understanding of “hypochondria” (which is really considered a mode of obsessive-compulsive trait/disorder), and I am amazed that you are still using the term “hypochondria” for referring to this condition (regardless of its use in literary history).

    Additionally, it is often based on a heightened sense of true symptoms (although sometimes exaggerated), especially in people who are very intimately connected with scientific/medical situations/conditions). Like Darwin, who (it is believed) suffered for MANY years from Chagas disease, or perhaps other chronic diseases, which of course would be causing a variety of symptoms.

  • Mariah

    I’m actually expecting a new wave of gene hypochondria as personal genomics comes along. People will worry about not only their own genes, but will be beside themselves on their kid’s genes….

  • Dorote Lewandowski

    They had food intolerances/allergies/fungal or bacterial infections! I see this time and time again – in my sons too – just browse the Food Intolerance Network. Many affected individuals that have similar symptoms of eczema, gut disbiosis/problems, malaise, sleep problems, body pains, it is seen in Aspergers – it somehow contributes to special gifts, almost as though the nervous system is stimulated in an intensive manner. The neurochemicals are formed in a large part in the gut after all!

  • Alex Szczech

    I’m really enjoying the show. Fascinating topic. I believe that hypochondria is closley related to OCD or body dysmorphic disorder and is primarily due to chemical imbalances in the brain.

  • http://abcdeology.com Nate

    In my opinion, one of the biggest contributers to modern hypochondria has to be the constant drug advertisements on television.

  • kristine keenan

    I am so looking forward to read this book, I agree with the premise that some people are more sensitive and aware to what is happening in their bodies and as one caller, a doctor, commented that, often the suffering that someone is going through is at root cause an infection. That is my personal experience. I spent 5 years telling doctors that I pain in my jaw that felt like an infection. All the doctors saw was a “hysterical female” suffering from anxiety. Finally I was able to convince a doctor that due to an untreated infection from a incorrectly done root canal, that there was a real problem. The infection was removed as well as all of the bone under the tooth. The pain I was suffering from was the infection eating away my jawbone. I now suffer from painful nerve damage that is probably permanent. When I returned to see one of the doctors that had told me nothing was wrong, he actually commented that “I was more in touch with what was happening in my body and that he could only go by his clinical experience.” I strongly urge anyone that thinks that something is wrong to seek 2nd 3rd and 4th opinions until someone in the medical community takes their suffering seriously. Sadly, for people that suffer from a “complicated” history, they are often pushed aside as the doctors (in my experince) are all so narrowly focused on their specialty, the diagnosis is often incorrect, and the suffering continues. This in itself often leads to anxiety and depression due to the constant pain and uncertainty on the part of the patient. Thank you, I can now think of myself as someone is of a sensitive an attuned nature and not just a woman with anxiety, as I have been classified by so many doctors, as I pursue how to proceed with the damage done.

  • J Baker

    Orca in small pool for theme park gets sick from disease treatable but debilitating to health of animal. Biologist perceives creature is ill due to inability to express phenotype and natural behavior, believes health could be improved if container allowed creature to actualize its drives and senses.

    A child in school is bored and tunes out teacher, years later becomes sick to escape classroom drudgery.

    Isaac Newton day dreams while horse takes him home over several miles after school.

    Sir Ken Robinson discusses an example of how modern school’s may be “killing creativity” by medicating students who don’t behave as desired, where as in the past, using an example of a child who, didn’t meet the normal classroom behavior, grew up to be a wildly successful and and prominent dancer because she was taken out of the classroom and taught dance. He suggests that today it is likely she would have been medicated to treat ADD.

    Without a wilderness or frontier to absorb those people who don’t fit the mold of civil society, to wander off to to find home and peace of mind after they fail to succeed in town, I think schools need to address that a percentage of every generation will always collide with the official system until it can create a an artificial frontier within the formal system.

    The formal system dwells on the model that everyone will buy a home a few miles from a benthic work place. This is true for most. However, population dynamics and resource limits do not dovetail. The formal system does not yet address educational needs for those people who will change homes/jobs four to five times in their life.

    At some point hyper-societies will “hover” over static societies, traveling communities that have economic axle and hopefully cultured vs uncultured assembly; Greateful Dead village, at one point, less the drug dealers, a small traveling farmers market with car mechanics, artisans, merchants, everything less a post office and fire department and community college.

    There are several motifs that exist for traveling assemblies of people, most have succumb to loss in today’s economy and forced structure of success, such as the circus folks I know who are now unemployed and doing work that “kills” them, as they are not exercising their phenotype which would likely be medicated in formal classrooms as misbehavior.

  • Cara

    It was interesting to listen to this program after hearing yesterday’s interview with Temple Grandin on Talk of the Nation. She made the point that many people on the Autism Spectrum have sensory issues such as hypersensitivity to pain, noise, etc. and that this can be quite incapacitating. I wonder whether many people who might be labeled hypochondriacs are, at least in part, experiencing heightened pain/malaise/sensitivity because of neurological differences? Perhaps the hypochondriac simply has the advantage of being able to verbalize about his/her perceptions of physical sensations, where a person with autism might not be. . .

  • http://bruceguindon.com bruce guindon

    I can only hope that the world understands the loss of Howard Zinn and takes some time to reflect on what he was saying about the United States of America

  • gina

    I am skeptical of the author’s diagnosis of hypochondria in these individuals. Even with the modern medical community’s expanded knowledge base, failure to diagnose is rather common. Also, even once diagnosed (perhaps incorrectly), treatments may add side-effects rather than eliminate symptoms, both then and now.

    The lazy diagnostic labels of “hypochondria” and “hysteria” have largely fallen out of favor, but they have been replaced with “stress” and “depression”, when the doctor can’t determine what ails you. I’ve seen it happen to friends, family and myself; among the diagnoses eventually arrived at subsequent to blithe dismissal by an MD are Crohn’s disease, Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, and pain from end-stage colon cancer. I suppose it is an improvement that today only anti-depressants are offered for mystery malaise, rather than blood-letting or lobotomies.

  • gina

    For Peter Torrey, re Chronic Fatigue and Fibromyalgia:

    Some progressive doctors feel that many patients complaining of symptoms associated with those syndromes (and others, like Myalgic Encephalomyelitis or ME, a diagnostic label more prevalent in the UK) are actually suffering from undiagnosed or under-treated hypothyroidism. They note that these ill-defined syndromes arose at about the same time that “modern” methods of diagnosing and treating hypothyroidism became prevalent. Diagnosis by examination and history was largely abandoned in favor of a single blood test (TSH), which measures a pituitary hormone and incorrectly assumes a consistent feedback loop with respect to thyroid hormone levels. TSH has also come to be used as the sole determinant of dose titration, rather than symptom alleviation. Simultaneously, treatment by Armour (desiccated porcine thyroid tablets) was largely replaced by Synthroid, a synthetic containing only the less active of the two primary thyroid hormones.

    Some information here:

  • Tim Truemper

    Interesting comments however most of them do not address the actual DSM-IV definition of Hypochondriasis (an unfortunate archaic word). You can read the details on line but here is a summary of the diagnostic criteria: 1)Proeccupied with fears of having a serious illness based on MISPERCEPTION of one’s bodily symptoms; 2) The preoccupation exists despite medical evidence to the contrary; 3) Not a delusional preoccupation; 3) The preoccupation is distressing enough to the individual that it interferes with social, occupational or other important areas of living.

    There are other body symptom disorders that are close (e.g. Somatization disorder and Body Dysmorphic disorder). It is possible that some of the people in the 9 lives book do not actually have hypochondriasis but a similar “Somatoform” disorder.

  • ericb

    Perhaps it is just something to fill the empty time with.The mind continues to work and develop in sync with the dysfunct.Bye Zinn, later Salinger.

  • Patricia Livingston

    Tom et al: I, like Kristine Keenan (above) was really taken by the comments of the doctor who called in, highlighting the connection between hypochondria and the prospect of its basis having much to do with [unrecognized/undiagnosed) infection…Is there any way to find out who that doctor/caller was, and how he may be contacted?

  • http://www.personalgrowthtree.com Sandra – Energy Healing Enthusiast

    Response to a comment by Nate -

    “In my opinion, one of the biggest contributers to modern hypochondria has to be the constant drug advertisements on television.”

    I am in total agreement with you Nate. Advertisers create symptoms for new diseases. I rolled my eyes when I saw a drug ad on TV for cramped legs. They made it sound like a serious disease. Please. How about placing ads for all possible healing modalities available to humanity. Or get back to basics and start an exercise routine and start drinking plenty of pure,clean H20. Just a thought. :)

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