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Famous Migraineurs: Vincent Van Gogh

by Nancy Harris Bonk

Vincent van Gogh, born in Groot-Zundert, Holland, on March 30, 1853 may have suffered from Migraine or another headache disorder during his short, yet prolific art career. Certainly, there were references to "headache" in his personal correspondence. Researchers speculate that Van Gogh also had bipolar disorder and epilepsy. Born to Theodorus Van Gogh, a minister, and his wife Anna Carbentus, he came from a large family of five siblings; Theodorus, Cornelius, Anna, Elizabeth and Withelmein. The year before Vincent was born, his parents had another child, who was unfortunately stillborn. Van Gogh's parent's named this baby Vincent, then buried him near the family home, placing a tombstone with his namesake on it. This surely would have been a haunting memory for any child.

Van Gogh's early education was spent in village schools, where he drew and painted on a regular basis. His mother was a great source of encouragement for him. During his pre-teen years he was sent to two different boarding schools where he did exceptionally well in French, German, and English. When he was 15, during the midst of his academic school year, he suddenly left school and returned home, never finishing any formal education.

From the time Van Gogh was 16 until he was 22y, he worked for Goupil and Company, where his uncle was an art dealer. He started with this firm at the branch at The Hague, then worked for a bit in London - where he was crushed by his first rejection of love - and continued on with the firm in an office in Paris. However, due to his gruffness and attitude, he was fired from each of these positions.

Van Gogh went back to England and began working at a small school where his spiritual enlightenment began to unfold. But this religious pull was strong for him, leaving him feeling the need to preach. Van Gogh worked at a bookstore, but left this job to join the ministry. His post was at an extremely destitute mining town in Belgium, where it appeared he had a deep understanding for the miners. He went so far as to give away all his clothing and sleep on the floor with them. The miners didn't see him in the same light, thinking it was all very odd. It's been reported he may have had his first spiritual crisis during this period, 1879 - 1880. Maybe this is when he suffered his first bipolar episode, as he exhibited other extreme behavior during this time and eventually lost this job there too.

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