These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias

D.G. Hewitt - November 7, 2018

Kings and presidents have always been keen to be seen as wise. Similarly, generals and warlords have always wanted to be seen as fearless, while men of science and literature have wanted to be remembered for their great, rational minds. But even the most powerful king or the most enlightened scientist is human just like everybody else. As well as their strengths, they have their weaknesses. And some had fears just like us. What’s more, some of the most notable figures in history suffered from extreme phobias.

Some phobias were understandable, like the dictator who was terrified of flying after a close call in a helicopter crash. But others were far more bizarre, from artists who lived in fear of grasshoppers to the president who was convinced he was going to be buried alive. So, here we have the phobias that kept kings, rulers and other notable figures from history awake at night:

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
The Danish storyteller lived in fear he would be buried alive. Pinterest.

19. Hans Christian Anderson had a vivid imagination and obsessive thoughts of being buried alive dominated his later years

The Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson had a colorful imagination. Over the course of his prolific career, he wrote a number of children’s classics, including ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes, ‘The Ugly Duckling’ and, of course, ‘The Little Mermaid’. However, his ripe imagination and active mind was often a curse as well as a blessing. Anderson had a number of fears, not least the fear of being buried alive. He even took active measures to ensure that he would never endure this fate worth than death.

Not that such a fear was completely irrational. At the very least, it was certainly understandable given the time. The Victorian era was undoubtedly the golden age of taphephobia (literally meaning ‘fear of the grave’ in Greek). The popular press regularly printed sensational – and, almost certainly inaccurate – tales of people waking up in a coffin six feet under the ground. Anderson, as a well-read gentleman in cosmopolitan Copenhagen, would surely have read such urban myths. And he wouldn’t have been the only one to have taken them seriously. The practice of having a bell installed above a grave, with a piece of string going into a coffin so that the person inside could ring for help if they somehow woke up, was revived, having formerly been widespread during the days of the Plague. But Anderson had his own safety measure.

According to some of his biographers, Anderson leaves a note saying “I only appear to be dead” beside his bed when he went to sleep. He also took other precautions. For instance, he would deliberately avoid dogs since he also suffered from an acute fear of them, plus he never ate pork as he was paranoid about being poisoned. What’s more, it’s also claimed Anderson would always travel with a large piece of rope in his luggage since he was afraid of fire and feared he might need to escape from a burning hotel. In the end, however, it was cancer that killed the great Dane. Anderson passed away in his own bed in 1875 at the age of 70. He was surrounded by his friends and family. What’s more, since he was a very wealthy man at the time of his death, he could afford Copenhagen’s finest doctors, and they would have made double-sure Anderson was definitely deceased before he was buried in the city’s finest cemetery.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
FDR was so terrified of fires he refused to lock the doors of his White House bedroom. Wikipedia.

18. President Franklin Roosevelt was so afraid of fire that he would regularly practice fire drills on his own in the White House

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, famously told the American people that they had “nothing to fear except fear itself“. And he was no stranger to being afraid. While he might have enjoyed a highly privileged upbringing, Roosevelt had to overcome several sizable obstacles on the way to the White House. What’s more, he then had to overcome several more to stay in the top job and to push forward his vision for a fairer society and safer world. But while FDR faced such challenges head-on, there was one fear, in particular, he was never able to get the better of. The Commander-in-Chief was terrified he would be dead in a fire.

According to one biographer, Roosevelt’s crippling fear of fire emerged at a young age. Apparently, as a young boy, he had witnessed his aunt Laura alight following an accident with a household alcohol-burning lamp. It’s believed the sight of this young woman racing down the stairs on fire stayed with Roosevelt all his life. True or not, the fear was real. The President’s Secret Service agents revealed that he refused to lock his doors at night. Rather than being worried that open doors would allow a would-be assassin to get into his private quarters, Roosevelt was fearful that a locked door would prevent him from getting out if there was a fire. What’s more, the President would even carry out one-man fire drills. Even when he was confined to a wheelchair when his polio worsened, he would routinely drop to the floor and practice crawling to an open door or window.

Fire wasn’t President Roosevelt’s only phobia. Despite being a learned and rational man, he also had a fear of Friday 13th. So much so, in fact, that he refused to undertake any real journey on that day and would avoid formal occasions if he could. In the end, however, the great man was to die on Thursday 12th rather than Friday 13th, and it was to be natural causes rather than a fire that led to his death in 1945.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
After the war, Hitler’s own dentist revealed what a bad patient the dictator was. YouTube.

17. Adolf Hitler liked to portray himself as a superman, but he had a deep-rooted phobia of dentists – which may explain why he had such terrible oral hygiene

When SS officer Johannes Blaschke was captured by Soviet forces at the end of the Second World War, they were keen to interrogate him. After all, he had served as the personal dentist to several high-ranking Nazis. What’s more, it also emerged that he had been the dentist of Adolf Hitler too. Upon being questioned, Blaschke was only too happy to condemn his former patient. But rather than criticizing Hitler for his crimes against humanity and wars of aggression, the dentist simply revealed him to have been a terrible patient. Furthermore, he made it clear that, for all his monstrosity, Hitler had an acute fear of the dentist’s chair.

According to Dr. Blascke, Hitler suffered from “terribly bad breath, abscesses and gum disease”. But, despite his poor oral health, the Fuhrer would only agree to see his dentist if he was in acute pain such was his fear. Perhaps this fear was understandable. After all, Hitler needed eight separate trips to the dentist for one root canal treatment alone. Then, in 1944, he needed to have 10 fillings put in, while the attempt on his life in the summer of that year also left him with splinters in his face, making any pain even worse. Blaschke speculated that Hitler’s poor diet when he was a tramp on the streets of Vienna in the years following the First World War was to blame for the Nazi leader’s atrocious oral health.

And apparently, Hitler was not the only member of the Third Reich elite to suffer from a crippling fear of dentists. Blaschke also made it clear that Hermann Goering suffered from this too. Indeed, it was said that the founder of the fearsome Gestapo cried before he even sat down in the dentist’s chair and would often have to be held down by his assistants during treatment. In the end, the dental records of such monsters of history were used to identify their bodies at the end of the war. For example, while his body might have been burned outside of the Berlin bunker where he made his last stand, Hitler was identified by a dental bridge, plus the body of his personal secretary Martin Bormann was also identified through his teeth.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
Dali used his unique fear of grasshoppers for his art. Wikimedia Commons.

16. Salvador Dali was terrified of insects and had a particular phobia of grasshoppers, a fear he used to influence his work

In his day, Salvador Dali was one of the most celebrated artists in all of Europe. Similarly, these days, he is loved the world over, admired for his ingenuity and genius. But the painter and sculptor was not always so popular. As a child growing up in Catalonia, he was bullied by boys his own age. As well as calling him names, they would throw grasshoppers at him. This had a profound and long-lasting effect. From an early age, Dali suffered from an acute phobia of grasshoppers. Even as an older man, just the sound of the insects was enough to make him tremble, as several of his contemporaries observed.

As well as this unusual phobia, Dali also most likely suffered from Ekbom’s Syndrome. This is a condition where the sufferer believes that bugs are crawling all over their body – sometimes they can see them, or sometimes they just feel them. But far from seeking treatment for his phobia, however, Dali embraced it. As with his fear of insects in general, the Spaniard used his crippling anxiety over grasshoppers to fuel his ground-breaking work. Above all, he used the insects as central motifs in many of his paintings, providing critics and art historians with a wealth of clues pointing to what was going on in his head at the time.

According to scholars, Dali used grasshoppers to signify decay and destruction. He would often paint the insects larger-than-life, exaggerating their legs and mouths. In some paintings, he even depicted grasshoppers devouring the main subjects of the work. At other times, they were used to symbolize fear in general or even the wider idea of decay. Likewise, ants in Dali’s paintings are seen as representing the ideas of death and decay, though some critics also believe he used swarms of arts to represent lust and human sexual longing. Clearly, Dali’s phobias were a creative boon, even if they did make his life hell at times.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
Was Augustus really afraid of the dark as some of his contemporaries claimed? Pinterest.

15. Augustus Caesar might have been the most powerful man in the world, but the Roman Emperor was afraid of the dark and had a fear of thunder and lightening

In Ancient Rome, the Emperor was all-powerful. And Augustus Caesar, the first Emperor of the Roman Empire, was only too ready to wield his power. Indeed, from 27 BC up until his death in 14 AD, Augustus ruled his vast empire with an iron fist. He drove some rivals into exile, while he went to war with others. He even had several close friends and allies executed in order to hold onto his position. Understandably, Augustus was often paranoid, fearing an assassin would kill him in the same way conspirators had killed Julius Caesar in the Forum. But his fear of would-be assassins was nothing compared to his fear of the dark, not to mention his fear of thunder and lightening.

It was the Roman historian Suetonius who brought the Emperor’s fears to light. In his account of this turbulent time in the Empire’s history, he noted that the top man was scarred for life by an incident that occurred during his Cantabrian campaign. According to the tale, a fork of lightening killed a slave who was walking just a few meters ahead of Augustus. The Emperor took it as a sign that he had displeased the gods, so he quickly commissioned the construction of a temple dedicated to Jupiter, God of Thunder. Even this, however, didn’t prevent him from being terrified every time it rained.

As well as his fear of storms, Augustus may also have been afraid of the dark. Again, it’s Suetonius who revealed this possible weakness of the great man. Whether or not it was a true phobia, Augustus did almost certainly hate being alone in the dark, and the fear is believed to have gotten worse over the years as his belief that the gods wanted to punish him kept growing. But then, perhaps, as some contemporary observers and historians have noted, Augustus simply hated resting at night, preferring instead to be surrounded by subservient people and awake and busy plotting his next action.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
Peter the Great was a giant of a man – but he was terrified of small insects. Wikipedia.

14. Russian Tsar Peter the Great hated insects and his servants worked around the clock to keep his phobia at bay

Peter the Great ruled over Russian for more than 40 years. He was a giant of a man and a powerful ruler. He was also well-traveled and well-read. Indeed, for many Russians, he is one of the country’s greatest leaders of all time, and even today he is revered as a national hero. But Peter was just a man. He had fears and weaknesses just like everybody else. Above all, the Tsar was terrified of insects, and it was a fear he had to confront almost on a daily basis.

Nobody knows where Peter’s great hatred for creepy-crawlies originated, whether it was from childhood trauma or started during the tour of Europe he undertook as a young man. But what is certain is that the phobia had fully gripped him by the time he ascended to the Russian throne. It was said that the Tsar would send servants on ahead of him to check for insects. All rooms needed to be completely bug-free before he would set foot in it. Failure to keep the Tsar happy could have severe repercussions – as one loyal army officer reputedly found out when Peter punched him in the face after finding a cockroach in his house.

Peter the Great’s fear of insects may have been his most obvious weakness, but it was hardly the Tsar’s only phobia. In fact, the records from the time suggest that there were a number of things the mighty Russian wasn’t too keen on. For instance, it’s likely that he suffered from some degree of agoraphobia, preferring to stay indoors than head outside into wide, open spaces. This might be why he ordered his architects to refrain from installing high ceilings in the private quarters of his palace. Meanwhile, it’s also been alleged that Peter the Great also had a great fear of crossing over bridges, particularly ones that spanned rivers. Which perhaps makes his decision to found St Petersburg on a large expanse of marshland particularly confusing.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
Munch hated crowds and being outside and expressed his fears in his paintings. Visit Oslo.

13. Edvard Munch suffered from acute agoraphobia, and his fear of outdoor spaces and crowds was reflected in his art

“My afflictions belong to me and my art-‑they have become one with me. Without illness and anxiety, I would have been a rudderless ship.” So said Edvard Munch of the complex relationship between his mental health and his famous art. The Norwegian suffered from a number of phobias and neuroses, many of which he drew on for his work. Above all, it’s believed that Munch suffered from agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces, and this affected both his personal and his professional life.

According to some Munch scholars, the artist’s fear of wide, open spaces may have been rooted in childhood trauma. Young Edvard was just five years old when his mother died of tuberculosis. Then, just a few years later, his sister died from the same disease. This may have been the reason he was so afraid to venture outside on his own. After a spell in hospital as a young man, Munch spent the last 35 years of his life in near-complete solitude, staying at home and concentrating on his art. He never even spoke to the housekeepers who came to clean and cook. Unsurprisingly, none of them stayed for long, leaving the artist alone with his canvas and paints.

It’s often theorized that Munch’s most iconic work, The Scream, was his way of expressing what he was feeling. More specifically, many believe that the masterpiece is a representation of what it’s like to suffer from crippling agoraphobia. Or, it may well be just a reaction to a tough life consumed by various conditions and neuroses. After all, as well as his fear of outside spaces, Munch also suffered bouts of serious alcoholism, plus he was most likely schizophrenic too.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
Aviation pioneer Howard Hughes became increasingly paranoid about germs. Wikipedia.

12. Howard Hughes was a billionaire playboy and aviator in his youth but his later life was dominated by his obsessive phobia and fear of germs

Howard Hughes was a true pioneer. He was a key figure in the birth of the aviation industry, being a brave and brilliant pilot himself. He is also a successful movie producer and billionaire businessman. But despite all his achievements, Hughes is probably best remembered for his eccentric ways and, above all, for his phobias. The last years of his life in particular were consumed by his crippling phobia of germs, a fear that led him to become a near-complete recluse for some 20 years.

After his death in 1976, doctors carried out an examination of Hughes’s brain, trying to figure out what exactly plagued. They also looked into his life and came to the conclusion that the eccentric behavior that dominated his later years had its roots in childhood. Hughes was a mollycoddled young boy. His mother, irrationally fearful he would contract polio, kept him isolated from other children and was obsessive about germs and hygiene, overreacting to the slightest cough or sniffle. Evidently, this rubbed off on the young Howard.

As an adult, Hughes became increasingly paranoid about germs. He required his servants to take extreme precautions, and there were even whole manuals for them to consult before they could prepare the billionaire’s lunch or clean his personal quarters. In today’s terms, he suffered from crippling Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Things got so bad that he would stay alone and isolated for weeks, even months, at a time, walking around with Kleenex boxes on his feet in place of shoes. But, ironically, Hughes neglected his own health and hygiene in later years. Firmly believing that he would stay clean if only he could keep outside germs away, he didn’t wash or even brush his teeth for months. He died of kidney failure at the age of 70, with his phobias and obsessions having led to a dangerous codeine addiction that most probably contributed to his eventual passing.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
As he aged, Washington became increasingly fearful of being buried alive. Wikipedia.

11. President George Washington, like many of his contemporaries, suffered from taphophobia, a fear of being buried alive

George Washington was nobody’s fool. In fact, the Founding Father of the United States – and the nation’s first President – possessed one of the finest minds of his age. But still, he had his fears and phobias just like everybody else. In particular, Washington feared being buried alive. And, perhaps justifiably so. After all, there were no medical machines reading pulses back in 18th century America, and sometimes people looked dead but really weren’t. Washington was far from alone in suffering from taphophobia, even if, as the President, he was uniquely positioned to issue orders to make sure the worst-case scenario never happened.

By all accounts, Washington never showed any fear of being buried while still alive until he reached old age. Then, it seems he became increasingly consumed by the phobia. Apparently, while lying on his deathbed, the President ordered that his body be left alone and untouched for two days. This way, his doctors, as well as his servants – and, perhaps most importantly of all, the gravediggers and undertakers – could be certain that he had passed away.

Washington’s reported taphophobia only served to fuel other people’s fears. During the 19th century urban legends of people being buried alive, sometimes rescued but other times not, spread across America as well as Europe. Some scholars claim that as many as 2% of all the people buried back then may have been in a coma or stupor rather than actually being dead, though others dispute this and maintain that actual instances of people being buried alive are very rare, even in the days before modern medical technology.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
Kim Jong-Il went nowhere fast due to his acute fear of flying. Time.

10. Kim Jong-Il walked away from a helicopter crash, an event that would cause him to suffer from a life-long fear of flying

In 2001, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il paid a formal visit to Russia. The journey to Moscow took him an incredible 24 days to complete. The reason? The leader ordered that he be taken by train. The epic journey led to intense speculation that, for all his bravado, Kim was suffering from an extreme fear of flying. And, while many rumors about the North Korean leadership have been nothing more than hearsay and urban legend, this one was completely true. Kim was scared stiff of flying.

According to one account, Kim Jong-il was involved in a serious helicopter back in 1976. The crash left him not only with a noticeable physical scar but with a mental scar, too. Above all, it put him off flying for life. From then on, he would travel only by road or rail. Even when he became leader himself, taking over the country from his father, Kim Jong-il insisted on traveling by train, no matter how far he needed to travel. But he didn’t just travel by train. Instead, the dictator had his own personal fleet of six heavily-armored trains, as well as his own network of private and secure stations. For safety reasons, it’s believed that the leader’s trains were restricted to just 60kmph, which explains the amount of time needed to travel to Moscow.

Interestingly, while he might have inherited many things from his father, including his desire to rule alone, the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un does not share his predecessor’s fear of flying. Indeed, he has been photographed stepping out of planes smiling, with some observers speculating that he has been keen to portray himself as free from fears and phobias as he looks to strengthen his grip on the country. At the same time, however, Kim Jong-un does still use his father’s secure and luxurious trains, traveling in one to China for historic talks just a couple of years ago.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
Marcel Proust’s fear of going out helped keep him focused on writing. Wikipedia.

9. Marcel Proust wrote in isolation, with the French author’s agoraphobia keeping him free from the many distractions of city life

Marcel Proust is widely regarded as a true literary titan. Above all, the Frenchman is best known for his epic work In Search of Lost Time. Published in 7 installments between 1913 and 1927, the work is a massive 3,000 pages long. How did Proust find the time to write such a lengthy literary masterpiece? Well, being agoraphobic was, in this regard, a blessing. Proust’s fear of going outside helped him sit down, undisturbed, and write an estimated 230 pages of polished prose a year for more than a decade.

According to the legend, Proust lived in the center of Paris. Rather than enjoying the views afforded by his upmarket apartment, he fitted thick curtains and had them closed at all times. He also had the walls of his main writing room fitted with cork to make them soundproof. Free from outside interference, Proust would stay in bed, in complete solitude, simply concentrating on his writing. Indeed, it’s believed that the author spent as much as 90% of his time sat or lying in bed. Certainly, he never regretted his circumstances. Instead, he embraced solitude and, as his writing shows, had a genuine aversion to people and dreaded setting foot outside of his apartment.

Some Proust scholars believe that a serious childhood illness was the cause of his agoraphobia. It may well be that this trauma, combined with his constant problems with asthma, meant that he was simply afraid of going outside into downtown Paris lest he catches something. Certainly, his later years suggest that this was the case. For the final three years of his life, Proust stayed at home at all times, sleeping during the day and then waking to take one single meal and then write through the night.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
Jefferson was terrified of being asked to read aloud the Declaration of Independence – which he helped write. Wikipedia.

8. Thomas Jefferson suffered from social phobia and was so terrified of speaking in public he would pretend to be ill if invited to give a speech

Thomas Jefferson was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He was also one of the key authors of the Declaration of Independence, plus he served with distinction as first the Vice President and then the President of the new country. He was a highly principled man, with strong ideas and beliefs. But while he could write eloquently on a range of issues, not least on the ideas of personal freedom and liberty, he was truly terrified of being asked to speak aloud. Indeed, given the extent of his anxiety, it’s even more remarkable that Jefferson rose above his fears to become one of the greatest Americans of all time.

Jefferson was proud to have helped pen the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776. However, he was petrified that somebody would ask him to read the document aloud. For this reason, he is believed to have carried a copy of the Declaration on his person at all times, with accents marked above certain words to help him read it out loud if called upon to do so. Not that he needed to use it much, for Jefferson was adept at ducking out of public speaking engagements. On several occasions, he faked illness in order to avoid giving speeches or addressing crowds. Indeed, John Adams famously claimed that he never heard Jefferson mutter more than two full sentences in all the time the two men worked together in Washington.

In recent years, psychiatrists have argued that Jefferson most likely suffered from an acute social phobia. And it wasn’t just speaking aloud that the President was afraid of. He was also terribly uncomfortable with writing about himself. So much so, in fact, that by the 20th page of his autobiography, Jefferson has already expressed his worry that he has talked too much about himself!

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
Alfred Hitchcock made no secret of the fear he had of eggs. AFP.

7. Alfred Hitchcock had several peculiar habits and mental quirks, none more so than his hatred and deep fear of chicken eggs

The movie director Alfred Hitchcock had a complex relationship with food. He would binge on steaks and ice cream but then would wallow in intense bouts of guilt and self-loathing. But nothing was so strange as his relationship with eggs. Put simply, Hitchcock suffered from ovophobia. He had a fear of eggs – and chicken eggs in particular terrified him.

“I’m frightened of eggs,” he famously once told an interviewer. “That white round thing without any holes…have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breathing and spilling its yellow liquid?” Quite what caused this strange phobia remains a mystery. Certainly, Hitchcock himself never admitted to any egg-related past trauma. Nor did he have any bad experiences eating eggs – in fact, he hated them despite the fact he had never even tried to eat one.

While his phobia of chicken eggs might have been Hitchcock’s most bizarre fear, it was by no means his only one. The Englishman was famously afraid of many different things. In fact, he reveled in his fears and phobias, using them as a creative force. For instance, he was scared of sex, was terrified of heights and even had a lifelong fear that he might be mistakenly arrested and locked up for good – a fear that allegedly dated back to his childhood when his father would have him locked up in a local police cell in order to teach him a lesson if he misbehaved.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
King Henry VIII would lock himself away for weeks at a time due to his fears.

6. King Henry VIII of England was a germaphobe and would take extreme precautions to avoid the plague and other Middle Ages maladies

Henry VIII was a notorious womanizer. As well as his six wives, he also enjoyed the company of a string of mistresses, often not even bothering to keep his affairs secret. But the King’s philandering wasn’t the reason why he spent one whole summer sleeping in a different bed every night. Rather, Henry’s unusual nocturnal habits were due to his intense fear of diseases. If the scientists of the Tudor ages had known about germs, then they would most probably have diagnosed the English monarchy with an acute case of germ phobia. But even if they didn’t really understand what was going on in his mind, nobody was going to question the King’s hygiene habits.

Refusing to sleep in the same bed two nights in a row wasn’t the only precaution Henry took against falling ill. On several occasions, he locked himself away from the world for weeks at a time. For instance, the history books show that he spent the fall of 1517 in isolation. And then he shunned company for several weeks in the summer of 1528. On both these occasions, the plague was sweeping through England and the king was worried that he might become one of its victims – and understandably so.

Above all, Henry developed an obsession with so-called ‘sweating sickness‘. From the end of the 15th century, a wave of epidemics of this mysterious condition passed through Europe. It came on suddenly and, within hours, victims were covered in cold sweats. It was said that 50% of all people who contracted sweating sickness died from it, usually within 24 hours. Henry lived in mortal fear of the condition. He banished from his Court anyone who looked remotely ill and when a new epidemic broke out in Europe, he would lock himself away until he felt it was safe to come out. Obsessive, maybe even paranoid he might well have been, but perhaps wise too. After all, Henry died in 1547 at the age of 55 – and it was most probably his poor diet and lack of exercise rather than the plague which took him off.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
Mongol dogs were bred to huge and fearsome beasts – no wonder the warlord was so scared of them. Wikimedia Commons.

5. Genghis Khan may have been the most fearsome warlord of all time, but even he was terrified of dogs, though perhaps his caniphobia was understandable

Genghis Khan was undoubtedly one of the most fearsome and fearless warriors the world has ever seen. Born in 1162, the Mongolian warlord rose to become the leader of his clan and then worked to unite his rivals, crushing those who wouldn’t join him. Under his leadership, the Mongolian Empire stretched from eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan; indeed, after his death, it grew to become the largest contiguous empire in history. But, however powerful he became, Genghis Khan did have one notable weakness – by all accounts, he was terrified of dogs.

Genghis Khan’s methods of conquest were as brutal as they were effective. Upon taking an enemy village, he would kill everyone he would find. What’s more, he also ordered his men to kill any cats and especially any dogs they found in the village. This way, the warlord was able to spread fear throughout his empire, as well as throughout the lands he had not yet conquered, plus he got to kill the animals he hated the most in the world.

But perhaps Genghis Khan’s phobia of dogs wasn’t so irrational. After all, in Mongolia, dogs were huge, powerful beasts, usually bred for hunting or to protect livestock from wolves. They were so vicious that even the most powerful man of the time would have been wary of them. But still, that didn’t prevent Khan’s enemies from exploiting his weakness. Some were foolish enough to criticize him or question his strength or bravery. Even his own father was worried. He allegedly told his wife-to-be’s parents: “my son is afraid of dogs. My kinsmen, don’t let my boy be frightened by dogs.” In the end, however, Khan coped with his phobia and didn’t let it stop him from taking over almost all of the known world.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
President Nixon was more than a little scared of hospitals – he was petrified. Wikipedia.

4. President Richard Nixon had a phobia of hospitals and feared that if he checked into one, he would never come out

Richard Nixon will forever be remembered as one of the most controversial Presidents in American history. He was the man behind the Watergate scandal that ended up with him stepping down from the top job in disgrace. The infamous episode was the direct result of Nixon’s tireless ambition to get to – and stay at – the top. Nothing would stand in his way, not even serious illness. However, when he was diagnosed with a serious blood clot following his resignation, Nixon was very reluctant to get it checked out, not just because it would take him away from the seat of power, but because he had a long-standing fear of hospitals.

Of course, lots of people, including world leaders, have a fear of doctors and hospitals. But only a relative few have real nosocomephobia, an excessive phobia of hospitals. Nixon almost certainly had it. Above all, he was incredibly paranoid that, far from making him better, a trip to the hospital would end in his death. As he said when advised to check himself in and get that blood clot sorted back in 1974: “If I go into the hospital, I’ll never come out alive.” In the end, however, the White House surgeons warned Nixon that if he didn’t go to hospital, he would almost certainly die anyway. He checked himself in – and his successor President Ford paid him a friendly visit.

But perhaps there was something to Nixon’s aversion to hospitals. After avoiding them all his life and enjoying a meteoric rise to the top job, when he did finally overcome his phobia and check himself in, he only got bad news. ‘Tricky Dicky’ was in a hospital bed when the results of the 1974 Midterm Elections came in – elections that were a disaster for the Republicans thanks to Watergate. And then, in 1994, he died in a New York hospital, having gone in having suffered a stroke but never making it out again.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
It was Napoleon III rather than his more famous uncle who was scared stiff of felines. Wikimedia Commons.

3. Napoleon III was so afraid of cats he would jump up on the palace furniture to avoid them

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was not an especially tall man. In fact, he was of average height for a Frenchman in the 18th century. Nor was he afraid of cats. But both of these ‘facts’ have been repeated over the decades. Rather than being an accurate depiction of Napoleon, they were most probably lies spread by his enemies. In particular, the British were always keen to portray the Emperor as physically weak, hence their propaganda mocking his alleged lack of inches. This might also explain why the rumor he was terrified of felines started to spread. After all, while dogs might be fearsome and manly, cats have often been portrayed as soft, feminine creatures, so to be labeled as being afraid of them was very insulting indeed.

But while Napoleon Bonaparte may not have been scared of cats, his nephew certainly was. Napoleon III ruled France and its empire from 1852 to 1870. While he might have been a strict ruler, clamping down on press freedom and imposing a strict policy of state censorship, his fear of cats could not be kept a secret. According to some accounts from the time, his ailurophobia was so intense that just seeing a cat would trigger a nervous response. Indeed, Napoleon III was said to have jumped up on the furniture if a cat entered the room and would refuse to come down until the animal had been removed.

Over the years, it’s likely that the Napoleons have been mixed up, with the latter’s phobias ascribed to his more famous uncle and predecessor. At most, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was simply indifferent to cats. He famously preferred dogs, who he regarded as loyal, despising felines for their independent nature. Indeed, it could be said that Napoleon wanted his pets to be like his generals – happy to obey his every command without pause or question and devoid of any sense of independence or initiative.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
Charles Darwin was so crippled with anxiety he feared his work would never be taken seriously. Wikipedia.

2. Charles Darwin’s world voyages in the name of scientific research were all the more remarkable given that he suffered from extreme anxiety and agoraphobia

The naturalist Charles Darwin famously sailed around the world in the name of scientific research. His observations in South America, including on the Galapagos Islands, helped shape his theory of evolution. Remarkably, such voyages were undertaken despite the fact that Darwin suffered from crippling, sometimes debilitating, anxiety. The Englishman may also have suffered from agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces – making his travels across the oceans even more noteworthy.

Darwin was a prolific diarist. This habit not only gives us an insight into his scientific mind, but it also shows the worries he had. From the age of around 30, he started to worry about going out of the house on his own. He became increasingly terrified of crowds and would need the support of his friends, or above all his wife, in order to leave the house. Traveling to central London to present his work was a particular worry for him. But still, while he may have shown classic symptoms of agoraphobia, Darwin usually overcame them.

Alongside his fear of crowds and open spaces, Darwin also suffered from extreme anxiety. He was constantly worried that his work wasn’t good enough. Even with the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin feared he would be found out as a fraud. Then 50-years-old, he famously wrote to his fellow scientist Robert Hooker: “You ask about my book & all I can say is that I am ready to commit suicide. I thought it was decently written, but find so much wants rewriting…I begin to think that anyone who publishes a book is a fool.” Of course, Darwin’s worries were ill-founded. Now, the book is regarded as one of the most important scientific works of all time, and Darwin himself as one of the most important scientists who ever lived.

These Famous Historical Figures Suffered from Unique Phobias
Frederic Chopin was so scared of being buried alive, he ordered that his heart be cut out. Wikimedia Commons.

1. Frederic Chopin asked his family to cut his chest open so that they could be certain he wouldn’t be buried alive

In the summer of 1849, the composer Frederic Chopin fell ill. He had tuberculosis and the prognosis didn’t look good. Family and friends traveled to Paris, the city he had been calling home for several years. At his request, they played music and sung to him while he was on his deathbed. And, alongside the music, Chopin had one other last request: he begged his family to make sure he really was dead before he was taken away to be buried. For, like many people in 19th century Europe, Chopin had a deep-seated fear of being buried alive.

Chopin’s last, grisly wish was fulfilled. Within hours of his passing, his body was cut open. Certain that he was really dead, his heart was removed. It was then sent to the composer’s home city of Warsaw in Poland. The rest of his body was then buried in Paris. The funeral was a huge event. Indeed, it was probably the social event of that autumn, and it had to be delayed by almost two weeks because so many people applied for tickets to attend. More than 150 years after his death, scientists were able to examine his preserved heart and conclude that he died of a rare complication of TB.

This phobia of being buried alive – one shared by many other notable men of the age – was hardly irrational. Alfred Nobel, the scientist who established the world-famous awards, also asked that his veins be opened up when it appeared that he was dead, so as to make doubly sure. Indeed, it was only really with the introduction of cremation that this phobia has started to disappear from society, even if there are still to this day very rare instances of people ‘coming back to life’, having been wrongly pronounced as deceased.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

National Archive – Hitler and his Dentist

Daily Mail – Nazi Records Show How Hitler Hated Going To The Dentist

Hans Christian Anderson – The Emperor’s New Clothes

Hans Christian Anderson – The Ugly Duckling

Hans Christian Anderson – The Little Mermaid

“The Infested Mind: An Entomologist’s Crippling Fear of Insects.” Discover Magazine.

Medium – Edvard Munch’s “Anxiety”

The New York Times – Looking at Edvard Munch, Beyond ‘The Scream’

Architectural Digest – The Secret History Behind Edvard Munch’s The Scream

“Hughes’s germ phobia revealed in psychological autopsy.” American Psychological Association, July 2005.

“10 Famous People Who Were Afraid They’d Be Buried Alive” BESS LOVEJOY, Mental Floss, MAY 20, 2015.

“Kim Jong-Il’s fear of flying ‘caused by copter crash’.” Sydney Morning Herald, June 2003.

“Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection: Review.” The Guardian, March 2004.

“Alfred Hitchcock and His Love-Hate Relationship With Food.” REBECCA GIBIAN, Insider Hook, March 2018.

DW – ‘Proust Teaches Us To Pay Attention’

News Week – How Hitchcock Instilled His Own Anxieties in His Audience

The Conversation – What Was Sweating Sickness – The Mysterious Tudor Plague Of Wolf Hall?