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Brain Disorder Ataxia Hereditary - Lincoln's Family Have It

Lincoln's stiff gait may be inherited

John Faherty
The Arizona Republic

Laurie Crary of Prescott is a sixth cousin of Abraham Lincoln.

As a child, she found that to be a novelty and a treat allowing her to bring cookies to class on his birthday.

As she grew up, Crary grew clumsy and the Lincoln blood in her veins became the source of a family joke. "We called it the dreaded Lincoln disease because so many of us were uncoordinated," Crary said.

Today, on the 197th anniversary of his birth, Lincoln relatives know their clumsiness is not a laughing matter.

One-third of those who can trace their bloodline to Lincoln live with hereditary ataxia, a brain disorder that causes a lack of coordination, slurred speech and difficulty swallowing. Eventually, many with the disorder, which gets worse with age, are confined to a wheelchair.

There is now a debate between people who want to test Lincoln's DNA to see if he too lived with the disorder and those who say the 16th president should be left in peace.

Crary, 50, is a direct descendant of Abraham Lincoln's uncle Josiah Lincoln. President Lincoln has no direct living descendants.

She advocates for testing.

"My grandmother's maiden name was Lincoln. It's always been a family high spot," she said. "I think it would interesting historically to find out."

The idea that there really was a "Lincoln disease" first became real to Crary at a Lincoln family reunion in Iowa.

Crary has so far remained in good shape physically. She describes her walk as stiff-legged and says she would not think of walking up a flight of stairs without holding on to the railing. Her father, who also has hereditary ataxia, has been in a wheelchair for years.

At the 1992 reunion, Crary says watching the large group of Lincoln's descendants drew into focus how many of them were affected by the disorder.

"Once you notice it, it's such a hallmark. You notice people walking stiffly. You notice people walking with their feet more widely apart to stay balanced," said Crary, who works in the information technology department at Yavapai College.

Also at the reunion were researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Minnesota studying ataxia in the family. They drew blood samples from all of the Lincoln relatives in attendance. Eventually, they tested 300 people and learned that one in three has hereditary ataxia.

Their findings were published this month in the magazine Nature Genetics. There is a 25 percent chance that Lincoln had genetic ataxia.

He was a large, strong man during his youth but those who observed him spoke of his awkwardness and a "clumsy gait" as he aged. He died at age 56.

One of the lead authors of the research, Laura Ranum, a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Minnesota, believes Lincoln's DNA should be tested.

"I think it is of significant historical value," Ranum said. "There is not much we can learn scientifically at this point from him. But I think it is of great historic value to learn everything we can about the man.

"If we learned he had ataxia, it would explain much about the environment in which he lived."

Ranum also says it would serve as an inspiration to people with ataxia to learn that one of our nation's greatest leaders lived with the disease.

On April 15, 1865, when Lincoln died, his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said: "Now he belongs to the ages."

But should his DNA belong to scientists?

Researchers would not need much. A garment with his blood or some of his hair would suffice. His grave would not need to be disturbed as there are artifacts in museums.

However, many people, including influential Lincoln historians, believe Lincoln artifacts should be left alone.

Over the years, some historians and scientists have speculated that Lincoln had Marfan syndrome,a connective tissue disorder that can affect the skeleton, lungs, eyes, heart and blood vessels. The disease is characterized by long limbs, which Lincoln certainly had.

Geneticists asked the National Museum of Health and Medicine for a Lincoln sample to test for Marfan. The museum said no, cautioning that "the greater public good is served by not destroying this . . . national historic treasure."

It is important to note, however, that the theory that Lincoln had Marfan is speculative. There is a one in four chance that Lincoln had ataxia.

Other opponents to testing point to the president's last surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who once made it clear that he wished his father's remains be undisturbed.

Kim Bauer is curator at the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. "What historical purpose would it serve?" he asks. "I would fall on the side of leaving President Lincoln alone."

For Crary, however, the tests would serve a purpose.

"I think it would be interesting historically," Crary said. "I don't think it would diminish his presidency at all to know that he had ataxia. In fact, I would think it would make him more impressive."

Research librarian Donna Colletta contributed.