He Has Made a Chasm…Which Nothing Has a Tendency to Fill up

Portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds, 1775

The visual impairment and inscrutable disease of Samuel Johnson.

Samuel Johnson, the acclaimed author of the Dictionary of the English Language, survived childhood scrofula with impaired sight and hearing. The cause of his scrofula has been attributed to bovine tuberculosis, but mycobacterial infection does not satisfactorily account for the peculiar features of Johnson’s eye disorder or his hearing loss. The subject of numerous biographies, Johnson may have the most scrutinized medical history of all time. Medical detectives, hampered by the vagueness of 18(th)-century diagnosis, suspect that phlyctenular eye disease related to tuberculosis was the reason for his visual impairment. Pediatric brucellosis can also explain childhood scrofula associated with visual and auditory disabilities, but it may be difficult to reconcile any single diagnosis given the uncertainties surrounding Johnson’s medical and ocular histories.

From David Brooks, The Road to Character, page 213:

Samuel Johnson was a frail infant who surprised everybody by living through the ordeal of birth.  He was immediately handed over to a wet nurse whose milk infected him with tuberculosis of the lymph nodes, which made him permanently blind in one eye, with poor vision in the other, and deaf in one ear.  He later developed smallpox, which left his face permanently scarred.  His doctors, in an attempt to relieve his disease, made an incision, without anesthesia, in his left arm.  They kept the wound open with horsehair for six years, periodically discharging the fluids they associated with disease.  They also cut into his neck glands.  The operation was botched and Johnson went through life with deep scars running down the left side of his face from his ear to his jaw.  Physically, he was large, ugly, scarred, and ogrelike.

He fought vehemently against his maladies.  One day, as a child, he was walking home from school but could not see the gutter in the street, and feared tripping on it.  He got down on all fours and crawled along the street, peering closely at the curb so that he could measure his step.  When a teacher offered to give him a hand, he became enraged and furiously beat her away.