The Case of the Prolific Poet with a Crooked Foot

Albert B. Lowenfels, MD; Shevaun Mackie Doyle, MD

Disclosures

August 22, 2008

Brief Biography

George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) is remembered not only for his poetry, but also for his handsome features (marred only by his clubfoot), his flamboyant lifestyle, numerous romantic affairs, and passionate involvement in revolutionary struggles.

He was the only child resulting from the unfortunate marriage of Catherine Gordon, a Scottish heiress, and "Mad Jack" Byron. Growing up with a deformity had a profound impact on Byron's personality; he remained extremely sensitive about his deformity throughout his life and his clubfoot may have played a role in his decision to become a poet.

Byron's own short-lived tumultuous marriage at age 26 to Annabella Milbanke ended soon after the birth of their only child together. Immediately after their divorce Byron left England, never to return. He was a heavy drinker, chewed tobacco, and was reputed to be bisexual. Byron had numerous affairs throughout his lifetime, which punctuated his extensive European travels. While in Venice he boasted of having 200 different amorous affairs in the course of 200 evenings.

Although unable to walk normally and in spite of his hedonistic lifestyle, he became a strong, proficient long-distance swimmer, bathing in the sea and in rivers under challenging circumstances. In 1807 he successfully completed a 3-mile swim in the Thames River. In 1809 he undertook a strenuous 2-hour swim in the Tagus River of Portugal; and on May 3, 1810, at age 22, he swam from Asia to Europe across the Hellespont. Although the distance is not great, the currents are treacherous, making this a challenging feat. In later life Byron remarked that he would rather have swum the Hellespont than have written all of his poetry. To commemorate his feat, there is a yearly international swimming event across the bay separating Europe from Asia.

Byron was also a passionate revolutionary. He took an active part in the Italian conflict with Austria, and he died while helping Greece battle against the Turks. Malaria was believed to have been prevalent in Missolonghi, the town in Greece where Byron died, and a recurrence may have caused the high fever that developed during his terminal illness.

Byron's oeuvre is large, consisting of several volumes of long epic poems, short verses, and letters. Byron became, and still is, a widely admired Romantic poet whose brooding, melancholy works have had a great influence on generations of writers, including James Joyce, Tennyson, and W.H. Auden. Even today, because of his larger-than-life personality, he has remained a cult figure. Anita Pallenberg, the model, actress, and designer, grew up wanting to be like Byron, including wishing she had been born with a clubfoot.[10,11,12]

The Poet's Mathematician Daughter

Although reputed to have approximately 500 love affairs, Byron had only 2 children, both girls. One daughter, born out of wedlock, died at the age of 6. Ada, his legitimate daughter, was the offspring of his short, disastrous marriage to Anne Isabelle (Annabella) Milbanke. Ada never learned that her father was a famous poet until she became a teenager.

As she grew up, Ada's main interests were science and mathematics, leading to friendships with leading 19th century scientists. She had an extensive correspondence with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first calculating machine, believed to be the precursor of the modern computer. The US Department of Defense honored Ada's contribution to the development of computers by naming their computer coding language "ADA." She died at age 36, the same age that both Byron and his father were at the time of their deaths, without ever having met her illustrious parent.

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