Joseph I. Sirven, MD, Talks About the Epilepsy of Pope Pius IX

Did Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) have epilepsy? Joseph Sirven, MD, Mayo Clinic, and his colleagues recently published a study that indicates that the Pope did indeed have epilepsy. The goal of the study, according to the abstract, was “to assess how epilepsy influenced Pope Pius IX’s life and his papacy.” In a joint effort with librarians from Mayo Clinic, Library of Congress, and the Vatican Library, the researchers were able to identify sources regarding the health history of the Pope. Despite this condition, they found that during the Pope’s reign, his seizures influenced just one doctrine alone – the dogma relating to the Immaculate Conception.

What it is that inspired Dr. Sirven to become involved in the research and writing of this article? He said, “I suspected that the Pope did have epilepsy because it had been reported by some. However, I never knew if that was true or not. I have always been curious, as an epileptologist who happens to be Catholic, how epilepsy may have impacted the life of one of the most important Popes.”

How did epilepsy play a role in the papacy of Pius IX? “Much to my surprise, epilepsy played a significant role; yet no one ever mentions this fact.”

Dr. Sirven undertook what he called “a fascinating journey for me.” He said, “This project, called ‘Seizures Among Public Figures: Lessons Learned From the Epilepsy of Pope Pius IX,’ enabled me to combine my interest in religion with those of my professional career which led to this project. It has taken four years to complete.”

We asked Dr. Sirven what lessons he learned from this study. “The main lesson learned for me is that neurological diseases such as epilepsy have a stigma that can often be used by both enemies and allies of individuals to further their interests. Enemies of those with epilepsy can simply state that the work of those people with epilepsy is tainted or clouded by their seizures, whereas supporters simply point out that epilepsy is an obstacle to overcome.”

Dr. Sirven concluded that the Pope was an example of someone with seizures who was able to achieve greatness despite the stigma attached to epilepsy in the 19th century and who can therefore be an inspiration to people even today.

We present here the following link to the full article, courtesy of Mayo Clinic Proceedings:

About Dr. Sirven:

Joseph I. Sirven, MD, is Associate Professor of Neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. He did his neurology residency at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Minneapolis, and a fellowship in EEG/Clinical Epilepsy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Dr. Sirven currently chairs the Seniors and Seizure Task Force for the Epilepsy Foundation and co–edited the textbook, Clinical Neurology of the Older Adult (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2002). He is co-director of the epilepsy program at Mayo Clinic Arizona and is Director of Education for Mayo Clinic Arizona.

Dr. Sirven’s interests are in: Epilepsy and Seizure Treatments in Adults and Children (particularly older adults), Epilepsy Surgery, Electroencephalography, Investigational Antiepilepsy Drugs, Status Epilepticus, Vagal Nerve Stimulator, and the Ketogenic Diet. He has numerous peer-reviewed publications which can be viewed at PubMed.

Edited by Steven C. Schachter, MD

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