Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Dr. Johnson, a famous British writer and lexicographer, was a leading literary figure in the second half of the 18th century. He wrote the Dictionary of the English Language and Lives of the Poets. Many medical historians have speculated about his having Tourette Syndrome.

Dr. Samuel Johnson was noted by his friends to have almost constant tics and gesticulations, which startled those who met him for the first time. He also made noises and whistling sounds; he made repeated sounds and words and irregular or blowing respiratory noises. Further, he often carried out pronounced compulsive acts, such as touching posts, measuring his footsteps on leaving a room, and performing peculiar complex gestures and steps before crossing a threshold. His symptoms of (a) involuntary muscle jerking movements and complex motor acts, (b) involuntary vocalizations, and (c) compulsive actions constitute the symptom complex of Gilles de la Tourette syndrome (Tourette's syndrome), from which Johnson suffered most of his life. *

*Medical History, Dr. Samuel Johnson's movement disorder by TJ Murray, British Medical Journal, 1979, 1, 1610-1614.


Boswell's Life of Johnson contains the following contemporary accounts of Johnson's mannerisms (page numbers refer to the Project Gutenberg e-text used as source):

p30 [introduction]
I ... was very assiduous in recording his conversation, of which the extraordinary vigour and vivacity constituted one of the first features of his character.

p63 [1735, Johnson at 29]
He often had, seemingly, convulsive starts and odd gesticulations, which tended to excite at once surprize and ridicule.

p80 [c.1737, note from Alexander Pope]
He has an infirmity of the convulsive kind, that attacks him sometimes, so as to make him a sad Spectacle.

p81
The infirmity to which Mr. Pope alludes, appeared to me also, as have elsewhere observed, to be of the convulsive kind, and of the nature of that distemper called St. Vitus's dance ... Sir Joshua Reynolds, however, was of a different opinion, and favoured me with the following paper. "Those motions or tricks of Dr. Johnson are improperly called convulsions. He could sit motionless, when he was told so to do, as well as any other man; my opinion is that it proceeded from a habit which he had indulged himself in, of accompanying his thoughts with certain untoward actions, and those actions always appeared to me as if they were meant to reprobate some part of his past conduct. Whenever he was not engaged in conversation, such thoughts were sure to rush into his mind; and for this reason, any company, any employment whatever, he preferred to being alone."...When he and I took a journey together into the West, we visited the late Mr. Banks, of Dorsetshire; the conversation turning upon pictures, which Johnson could not well see, he retired to a corner of the room, stretching out his right leg as far as he could reach before him, then bringing up his left leg, and stretching his right still further on .....Johnson used to be a pretty frequent visitor at the house of Mr. Richardson, authour of Clarissa ... Mr. Hogarth came one day ... While he was talking, he perceived a person standing at a window in the room, shaking his head, and rolling himself about in a strange ridiculous manner. He concluded that he was an ideot, whom his relations had put under the care of Mr. Richardson ... To his great surprise, however, this figure stalked forwards to where he and Mr. Richardson were sitting, and all at once took up the argument ... he displayed such a power of eloquence, that Hogarth looked at him with astonishment, and actually imagined that this ideot had been at the moment inspired. Neither Hogarth nor Johnson were made known to each other at this interview.

p201 [1762, Boswell's first impression]
I was so wrapt in admiration of his extraordinary colloquial talents, and so little accustomed to his peculiar mode of expression, that I found it extremely difficult to recollect and record his conversation with its genuine vigour and vivacity.

p241 [1764]
Talking to himself was, indeed, one of his singularities ever since I knew him. I was certain that he was frequently uttering pious ejaculations; for fragments of the Lord's Prayer have been distinctly overheard. His friend Mr. Thomas Davies, of whom Churchill says, "That Davies hath a very pretty wife," when Dr. Johnson muttered "lead us not into temptation," ... He had another particularity, of which none of his friends ever ventured to ask an explanation. It appeared to me some superstitious habit, which he had contracted early, and from which he had never called upon his reason to disentangle him. This was his anxious care to go out or in at a door or passage by a certain number of steps from a certain point, or at least so as that either his right or his left foot, (I am not certain which,) should constantly make the first actual movement when he came close to the door or passage. Thus I conjecture: for I have, upon innumerable occasions, observed him suddenly stop, and then seem to count his steps with a deep earnestness; and when he had neglected or gone wrong in this sort of magical movement, I have seen him go back again, put himself in a proper posture to begin the ceremony, and, having gone throught it, break from his abstraction, walk briskly on, and join his companion.

p242
That the most minute singularities which belonged to him, and made very observable parts of his appearance and manner, may not be omitted, it is requisite to mention, that while talking or even musing as he sat in his chair, he commonly 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 as if ruminating, or what is called chewing the cud, sometimes giving a half whistle, sometimes making his tongue play backwards from the roof of his mouth, as if clucking like a hen, and sometimes protruding it against his upper gums in front, as if pronouncing quickly under his breath, TOO, TOO, TOO: all this accompanies sometimes with a thoughtful look, but more frequently with a smile. Generally when he had concluded a period, in the course of a dispute, by which time he was a good deal exhausted by violence and vociferation, he used to blow out his breath like a Whale. This I supposed was a relief to his lungs; and seemed in him to be a contemptuous mode of expression, as if he had made the arguments of his opponent fly like chaff before the wind.

p408 [1775]
Mr. Garrick [actor, Johnson's ex-pupil] imitated the manner of his old master with ludicrous exaggeration; repeating, with pauses and half-whistlings interjected, "Os homini sublime dedit, --caelumque tueri jussit, --et erectos ad sidera-- tollere vultus"; looking downwards all the time, and, while pronouncing the four last words, absolutely touching the ground with a kind of contorted gesticulation.

p746 [1781]
On ... Tuesday, the 20th, met him in Fleet-street, walking, or rather indeed moving along; for his peculiar march is thus described in a very just and picturesque manner, in a short Life of him published very soon after his death:--"When he walked the streets, what with the constant roll of his head, and the concomitant motion of his body, he appeared to make his way by that motion, independent of his feet." That he was often much stared at while he advanced in this manner, may easily be believed; but it was not safe to make sport of one so robust as he was.

p805 [Boswell's footnote]
I am happy, however, to mention a pleasing instance of his enduring with great gentleness to hear one of his most striking particularities pointed out ... a very young girl, struck by his extraordinary motions, said to him, "Pray, Dr. Johnson, why do you make such strange gestures?" "From bad habit", he replied. "Do you, my dear, take care to guard against bad habits."

Source:
Project Gutenberg's Etext of Life of Johnson by [James] Boswell December, 1998 [Etext #1564] prepared by Donald Lainson, extracts compiled by Ray Girvan

 

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