Neurological Foundation

Henry Cavendish: An early case of Asperger's syndrome?

Oliver Sachs, MD, This article is reprinted by kind permission of the American Academy of Neurology.

Is autism compatible with major creativity or genius? Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) made fundamental advances in many scientific areas, ranging from his discovery of hydrogen to his famous (and remarkably accurate) weighing of the earth and estimation of its density. He showed (by sparking hydrogen and oxygen together) the composition of water; he showed that air was a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen, and also that it contained a minute amount of another substance, which was identified a century later as argon. He discovered specific and latent heats, the cooling and heating of air with expansion and compression, and how the electrical conductivity of solutions varied with their concentration. He discovered eutectic mixtures and super cooling; he discovered an inverse-square law of electrostatic attraction and repulsion, and made exact investigations of what would later be called chemical equivalents. He was the first to realize that a fish, the torpedo, could generate electricity (and a form of electricity quite different from static electricity-electrical currents were unknown at the time). He united extraordinary intuitive powers with great experimental ingenuity and consummate mathematical skill, in a manner perhaps unequalled since Newton.

Yet even in his lifetime, his peculiarities were the stuff of legend. He did all his work alone, in complete solitude, in the extraordinary laboratory he built in his house. He rarely spoke to anyone, and insisted that his servants communicate with him in writing. He was indifferent to fame and fortune (though he was the grandson of a duke, and for much of his life the richest man in England), and seemed to have little comprehension of the value of money. He published only a fraction of what he did, and seemed to have very little idea of the importance of communicating or publishing his results. Completely uninterested in the competition, the rivalries, and the claims for priority that are such common motivations in science, he showed only indifference when Lavoisier and others claimed priority for discoveries that he himself had made years before.

In 1851, George Wilson, a gifted physician and chemist (and author of the first monograph on colour-blindness), published a book-length biography of Cavendish that not only covered every aspect of his life's work, but portrayed his eccentricities of mind and behaviour in beautiful detailĀ¹:

He did not love; he did not hate; he did net hope; he did not fear; he did not worship as others do. He separated himself from his fellow men, and apparently from God. There was nothing earnest, enthusiastic, heroic, or chivalrous in his nature, and as little was there anything mean, grovelling, or ignoble. He was almost passionless. All that needed for its apprehension more than the pure intellect, or required the exercise of fancy, imagination, affection, or faith, was distasteful to Cavendish. An intellectual head thinking, a pair of wonderfully acute eyes observing, and a pair of very skilful hands experimenting or recording, are all that I realise in reading his memorials. His brain seems in have been but a calculating engine; his eyes inlets of vision, not fountains of tears; his hands instruments of manipulation which never trembled with emotion, or were clasped together in adoration, thanksgiving, or despair; his heart only an anatomical organ, necessary for the circulation of the blood...

Yet, Wilson continues,

Cavendish did not stand aloof from other men in a proud or supercilious spirit, refusing to count them his fellows. He felt himself separated from them by a great gulf, which neither they nor he could bridge over, and across which it was vain to stretch hands or exchange greetings. A sense of isolation from his brethren, made him shrink from their society and avoid their presence, but he did so as one conscious of an infirmity, not boasting of an excellence. He was like a deaf mute sitting apart from a circle, whose looks and gestures show that they are uttering and listening to music and eloquence, in producing or welcoming which he can be no sharer. Wisely, therefore, he dwelt apart, and bidding the world farewell, took the self-imposed vows of a Scientific Anchorite, and, like the Monks of old, shut himself up within his cell. It was a kingdom sufficient for him, and from its narrow window he saw as much of the Universe as he cared to see. It had a throne also, and from it he dispensed royal gifts in his brethren. He was one of the unthanked benefactors of his race, who was patiently teaching and serving mankind, whilst they were shrinking from his coldness, or mocking his peculiarities. . .He was not a Poet, a Priest, or a Prophet, but only a cold, clear Intelligence, raying down pure white light, which brightened everything on which it felt, but warmed nothing-a Star of at least the second, if not of the first magnitude, in the Intellectual Firmament.

Many of the characteristics that distinguished Cavendish are almost pathognomic of Asperger's syndrome: a striking literalness and directness of mind, extreme single-mindedness, a passion for calculation and quantitative exactitude, unconventional, stubbornly held ideas, and a disposition to use rigorously exact (rather than figurative) language-even in his rare non-scientific communication-coupled with a virtual incomprehension of social behaviours and human relationships. Many of these are the very traits he used so brilliantly in his pioneering scientific research, and we are perhaps fortunate that he also happened to have the means and opportunity to pursue his "eccentric" interests despite his lack of worldliness.

Although it is true that genius may have a devouring or isolating capacity of its own, and that genius may be (though by no means must be) associated with profound neurosis-as in the case of the suspicious, quarrelsome, and sometimes paranoid Newton, so passionately jealous of his own prerogatives and priorities-the case of Cavendish seems to present an entirely different situation. There has been some tendency recently to claim Einstein, Wittgenstein, Bartok, and others as exemplars of autism, claims that seem very thin at best. But in the case of Cavendish, the evidence gathered by his biographer is almost overwhelming-and Wilson, writing a century before Kanner and Asperger, had no diagnostic presuppositions, only a wondering admiration and sympathy for his subject.

From the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx and New York University School of Medicine, New York, NY.

Address correspondence to Dr Oliver Socks, 2 Horatio Street 30, New York, NY 10014.

1. Wilson 0. The life of the honourable Henry Cavendish. London: The Cavendish Society, 1851.