Famous Migraineurs: Thomas Jefferson

by Nancy Harris Bonk Patient Expert

**A link in our 12/17/09 Newsletter was meant to take you to our article about famous Migraineur Carly Simon. It mistakenly led here. You can find the Carly Simon article.

Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, was born in Albernarle County, Virginia, on April 13, 1743. He graduated from William and Mary College with a degree in law and was a brilliant politician and the primary author of the Declaration of Independence.

Did you also know he suffered from what some theorize to have been Migraines, tension-type headaches or even cluster headaches, throughout his prolific career? Most Jefferson biographers including Dumas Malone, Fawn Brodie, and Merrill Peterson have called his "headaches" Migraines.

Jefferson may have had his first Migraine attack in his early twenties. He had laid out an arduous plan to court Miss Rebecca Burwell at a ball. Unfortunately, Miss Burwell did not share romantic feelings for Jefferson and became engaged to another man. Later that evening Jefferson appeared to have suffered a "violent headache," as he referred to them. This "headache" lasted for two days.

His second known "headache" took place when his mother died. Although they did not seem to have a close relationship, this was still deeply personal and traumatic. This attack however, lasted much longer, close to five weeks giving credence to the cluster headache theory. Cluster headaches occur in groups or clusters and can last hours to months then having extended pain-free periods. Thankfully, Jefferson's pain ended and he was able to travel to Philadelphia to help author the Declaration.

Close to the end of his five years in Paris as an American minister to France, Jefferson experienced another lengthy Migraine attack after the death of his wife. After this time, he was depressed and considered leaving public office. He changed his mind upon the offer of a diplomatic post in Europe working along side Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.

As Jefferson was summoned back to America in1789, he experienced another prolonged Migrainous period. This attacked lasted six days, and happened to coincide with a woman Jefferson spent many hours with and had deep affection for - Mrs. Cosway. Did this stressful period trigger this attack? Many Migraine specialists today believe that stress does not cause a Migraine, but may be an exacerbating factor. (See the transcript or read the podcast, Is Stress a Migraine Trigger?)

His fourth known attack has historical significance. It occurred in the spring of 1790 when he became the First Secretary of State under President George Washington, while working on finding a permanent home for the White House. Talks continued without progress, so Jefferson held a dinner party at his home during this attack. Joseph J. Ellis, in Founding Brothers, explains the evening quite nicely.

"Though he was still suffering from the lingering vestiges of a migraine headache that had lasted for over a month, and though he had only recently moved into his new quarters . . Jefferson offered to host a private dinner party where the main players could meet alone to see if the intractable political obstacles might melt away under the more benign influences of wine and gentlemanly conversation. . . . this story deserves to rank alongside the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 as one of the landmark accommodations in American politics. And, without much question, what we might call "The Compromise of 1790" would top the list as the most meaningful dinner party in American history."


During the winter of 1790-91, Jefferson suffered another long, intense attack. He devoted many hours trying to develop a new system of weights and measures for the nation. Since working during daylight hours seemed too painful, he worked at night, under candlelight. He had high hopes it would be adopted by Congress, but it was not to be. He managed a vacation to Lake George, New York
where he seemed to feel political issues were a main problem in regards to his headaches. Does this point us in the direction of Tension-type Headache?

Jefferson didn't seem to have any more long-lasting attacks until after he was President from 1801-1809. His Presidential race was so close, it finished in a dead heat.
"In fact, the 1801 Presidential election ended in a tie in the electoral college, and Jefferson was not declared the victor until the following February, after multiple ballots in Congress."2 His headaches seemed to resume when conflicts with Congress returned during his second term. In fact, he wrote about remaining in a dark room all day and into the early evening, not being able to think or read clearly, while suffering from his "periodical headache."

A letter he wrote to a granddaughter may provide some of the last clues that he had his last headache in April 1808. "

"I mentioned in my letter of last week . . . , that I was under an attack of periodical headache. This is the 10th day. It has been very moderate, and yesterday did not last more than three hours."


A review of the available literature seems to indicate that Jefferson may indeed have had Migraines, quite possibly triggered by tension-type headaches. Thomas Jefferson's "periodical headaches," as he referred to them may have centered around great times of stress. We all have stress in our lives to varying degrees. Presidential stress is different than stay-at-home-mom stress, construction-worker stress, or most any other kind of work stress; but is stress just the same. If we have Migraine disease, then stress may well exacerbate things, making us more susceptible to our triggers. Managing stress, identifying and managing triggers triggers, and modifying our lifestyle are a few things Migraineurs can do to reduce our Migraine frequency and severity.


1 Ellis JJ. "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation." New York: Alfred A. Knopf;2001.

2 Cohen, Gary L., MD; Rolak, Loren A., MD. "Jefferson's Headaches: Were They Migraines?" Headache 2006;46:492-497. doi: 10.1111/j.1526-4610.2006.00292.x

3 Brodie FM. "Thomas Jefferson, An Intimate History." New York: W.W. Norton, and Company; 1974.

4 Pearce, J.M.S. "The Headaches of Thomas Jefferson." Cephalalgia: Volume 23 Issue 6, Pages 472 - 473. 10.1046/j.1468-2982.2003.00563.x



www.state.gov. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/nr/14317.htm

Nancy Harris Bonk
Meet Our Writer
Nancy Harris Bonk

Nancy wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Migraine.