Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Limping into victory

Avi Ohry
Tel Aviv, Israel

There were people with disabilities in history who were not “limping into oblivion,”1 but rather paved their way to accomplishments and victories.2

The emperor Claudius, who may have had cerebral palsy or dystonia, reigned in the first century AD. During that time, the Roman Empire expanded greatly. He decreed that if injured or disabled slaves, soldiers, or gladiators recovered while being treated at the valetudinarium of Aesculapius on an island in the Tiber River, they did not have to return to their masters.3

Herimannus Augiensis or Herman von Reichenau was a monk, chronicler, mathematician, and poet born with a visible disability and deformity in 1013 at Althausen (Swabia). His family noticed he had intellectual abilities. Because of his several joint contractures, he was called “Hermann Contractus”. He was regarded as a scholar in many areas: theology, mathematics, astronomy, music ,ancient languages, and more. He died in 1054.

Tamerlane (1336–1405) was a ruthless Turco-Mongol conqueror who had  a marked limp and possible epilepsy. Antonio Francisco Lisboa (1730 or 1738–1814), known as Aleijadinho (the “little cripple” in Portuguese), was Brazil’s greatest artist-architect before modern times. He began to suffer from some progressive, disabling disease, possibly syphilis or leprosy. Eventually he lost his fingers and toes and became paraplegic or paraparetic. Yet he became a talented artist and architect who created well-known works at Minas Girais. And Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord (1754–1838), who served French kings and later Napoleon, had a clubfoot and limp, and he used a fitted orthopedic shoe.

These are just a few of the historical figures who found great success while having a physical disability.


  1. Wijdicks E, Botha H. “Limping into oblivion.” The Lancet Neurology, In Context: 2023; 22, ISSUE 11:990. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1474-4422(23)00368-X.
  2. Ohry A. “People with disabilities before the days of modern rehabilitation medicine: did they pave the way?” Disabil Rehabil. 2004;26(9):546-8. doi:10.1080/09638280410001663049.
  3. Ohry A. “The emperor with the shaking head.” J Roy Soc Med, 2000; 93:550. doi:10.1177/014107680009301017.

AVI OHRY, MD, is married with two daughters. He is Emeritus Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at Tel Aviv University, the former director of Rehabilitation Medicine at Reuth Medical and Rehabilitation Center in Tel Aviv, and a member of The Lancet‘s Commission on Medicine & the Holocaust. He conducts award-winning research in neurological rehabilitation, bioethics, medical humanities and history, and on long-term effects of disability and captivity. He plays the drums with three jazz bands.

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