Here's one secret of success you never hear about: get really sick as a child.
While serious illnesses, badly broken bones, or other grave maladies certainly aren’t to be wished for, historically they have had a surprisingly positive effect on some. Being bedridden for weeks, months, or even years in childhood is the common thread for these kids who later found fame as adults. (And fortunately, many of the once-common childhood scourges they endured, such as polio and scarlet fever, have been greatly reduced by medical advances in the decades since.)
Many examples come from creative fields, with the youths using their idle hours to read, write, draw and hone other talents. But the list also includes two U.S. presidents and others who seem to have been shaped for life by their experiences.
Among the sickly kids who grew up to make an indelible mark in the world are these examples:
John F. Kennedy (1917 to 1963)
Though remembered today for his youthful vigor and lively libido, John F. Kennedy was among the sickliest presidents in U.S. history, afflicted from youth with enough ailments to pack a medical encyclopedia. At 2 years old, he was bedridden with scarlet fever, an infection that in those days was often fatal. Later in boyhood he would be laid up with a series of digestive ailments and, at 16, he was hospitalized for a mysterious illness doctors feared might be leukemia. While terrifying, Kennedy's travails did have a positive side: Bedridden, he became a voracious reader and, while a just a so-so student in school, he went on to become one of our most history-conscious presidents. "Almost all his life, it seemed, he had to battle against misfortunes of health," his mother, Rose Kennedy, wrote in her memoirs. "Perhaps this gave him another kind of strength that helped him to be the great man he became."
Frida Kahlo (1907 to 1954)
The Mexican painter Frida Kahlo had barely turned 18 in 1925, when a bus she was riding in was rammed by a Mexico City trolley car. According to Hayden Herrera's biography, Kahlo's injuries were horrific: multiple breaks to her spinal column and pelvis, a broken collarbone and two broken ribs. Her right leg was fractured, her right foot crushed. She was impaled by a steel handrail that entered her left side and emerged through her groin. Remarkably, Kahlo survived her injuries, but she would spend the rest of her life enduring dozens of operations and suffering frequent pain. A year after the accident, in an attempt to realign her spine, she spent months immobilized in bed, wrapped in plaster corsets. "Almost by chance, then, she turned to the occupation that would remake her life," Herrera noted. In a later letter, Kahlo recalled, "I was bored as hell in bed with a plaster cast… so I decided to do something. I stoled [sic] from my father some oil paints, and my mother ordered for me a special easel." Among her earliest paintings was a self-portrait, the first of many that would become emblematic of her work.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858 to 1919)
War hero, mountain climber, big-game hunter, Teddy Roosevelt was a hairy-chested he-man if there ever was one. That may have come as a surprise to anyone who knew the 26th president in his childhood. "I was a sickly, delicate boy, suffered much from asthma, and frequently had to be taken away on trips to find a place where I could breathe," he recalled in his autobiography. "One of my memories is of my father walking up and down the room with me in his arms at night when I was a very small person, and of sitting up in bed gasping, with my father and mother trying to help me. I went very little to school." Around age 12, young Roosevelt willed himself to "make his body" and began a daily weightlifting routine, according to historian David McCullough's biography on Roosevelt. Progress was slow, though, and as McCullough tells it, it wasn't until Roosevelt went away to college that an "almost miraculous transformation" occurred, and his health took a serious turn for the better. As Roosevelt became increasingly robust, he embarked on a frenetic life of travel and adventure, including two terms as president, that more than made up for his lost youth. At age 53 he not only survived an assassination attempt but proceeded to deliver a roughly 90-minute campaign speech, despite having a bullet lodged in his ribs.
Wilma Rudolph (1940 to 1994)
When Wilma Rudolph was a little girl, no one could have imagined that she’d grow up to win three Olympic gold medals for running. For a long time it looked as if she’d never even walk. "I had a series of childhood illnesses," she said in an interview with the columnist Barbara A. Reynolds. "The first was scarlet fever. Then I had pneumonia. Polio followed. I walked with braces until I was at least nine years old." The braces were on her left leg, which had become paralyzed. As author Alex Haley told the story, doctors thought she might respond to therapeutic massage, so Rudolph's mother asked them to teach her the technique, and she in turn taught three of her older children. By Rudolph’s teens, she was walking without special equipment and eager to make up for lost time. She became a star athlete in high school, then again in college, and finally achieved international fame at the Rome Olympics of 1960. After retiring from running in 1962, she would go on to become a teacher, coach and motivational speaker, before her death from a brain tumor at age 54.
Bram Stoker (1847 to 1912)
The Irish-born author of "Dracula" and other horror tales had a childhood that would give anybody nightmares. In his "babyhood," Stoker wrote he was "often at the point of death. Certainly till I was about seven years old I never knew what it was to stand upright." Though the cause of his immobility remains unknown, writers have speculated that it may have been psychosomatic. Stoker wrote little about himself, and it's anybody's guess whether his youthful fantasies included an immortal Transylvanian with superhuman strength and an ability to fly. He did offer one cryptic clue, written almost as an aside in a biography of a longtime friend: "I was naturally thoughtful and the leisure of long illness gave opportunity for many thoughts which were fruitful according to their kind in later years."
Nikola Tesla (1856 to 1943)
The prolific inventor would look back at one near-fatal episode almost fondly. He was in his late teens at the time and resigned to studying for a life in the clergy to satisfy his parents, though his own passions pointed to engineering. "A tremendous epidemic of cholera broke out, which decimated the population and, of course, I got immediately," Tesla wrote in his autobiography. "Later it developed into dropsy, pulmonary trouble, and all sorts of diseases until finally my coffin was ordered. In one of the fainting spells when they thought I was dying, my father came to my bedside and cheered me: 'You are going to get well.' 'Perhaps,' I replied, 'if you will let me study engineering.' 'Certainly I will,' he assured me, 'you will go to the best polytechnic school in Europe.'" Tesla did get well, and the rest is science history.
Andy Warhol (1928 to 1987)
The future pop artist was in elementary school when he developed a rare disorder that caused his limbs to twitch and his skin to break out in blotches, according to "Warhol: The Biography" by Victor Bockris. Classmates reportedly nicknamed him Spot. In a possibly exaggerated account in his book "The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again)," Warhol claimed to have had "three nervous breakdowns when I was a child, spaced a year apart. One when I was eight, one at nine, and one at ten. The attacks — St. Vitus Dance — always started on the first day of summer vacation… I would spend all summer listening to the radio and lying in bed with my Charlie McCarthy doll and my un-cut-out cut-out paper dolls all over the spread and under the pillow." Warhol's doting mother kept him supplied with coloring books and rewarded him with Hershey bars for his artistic efforts. Bockris refers to the episode as "a golden time in Andy's childhood," calling Warhol's sickroom his first studio, and his mother his first assistant.
The list of sickly children who went on to lives of achievement doesn't end there, of course. Their ranks also include Alan Alda, Judy Collins, Francis Ford Coppola, Bobby Darin, Danny Glover, Che Guevara, Joni Mitchell, George Orwell, Dan Rather, Maurice Sendak, Ringo Starr, Robert Louis Stevenson, Tennessee Williams and Neil Young. Plus, no doubt, kids today we have yet to hear of, but who will one day change our world.