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RA throughout history
Archaeological investigations have turned up evidence of injuries, degenerative disease, infections, and tumors in ancient skeletons, but no signs (yet) of rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
"It isn’t clear how old rheumatoid arthritis is," says Nortin Hadler, MD, a professor of rheumatology and microbiology/immunology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "The more you look for it in history, the less you find it."
Here is a list of famous people who’ve battled the disease in recent history. (The first confirmed cases of RA were probably in the late 1800s.)
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The red-headed comedienne became very ill with an RA-like disease in her late teens, while trying to make her way as a model. Although doctors at the time diagnosed her with RA, some question whether the First Lady of Television truly had the disease. (Blood tests for RA were not available until years later, and Ball never developed joint deformities.)
After she recovered from the severe flare-up and leg pain so intense it kept her from walking, Ball moved to Hollywood to launch her film and movie career.
Russell enjoyed a long, successful career on stage and screen. But by the late 1960s, serious health problems, including severe RA, forced her to retire from acting.
Russell was open about her struggle with the disease and served on a national commission to investigate it. In 1978, two years after Russell’s death from breast cancer at age 69, Congress honored her efforts by founding the Rosalind Russell Medical Research Center for Arthritis at the University of California at San Francisco.
The French Impressionist is probably the first well-documented case of RA in history, according to Dr. Hadler. Toward the end of Renoir’s life, he was often unable to paint due to severe bouts of the disease that had forced his hands to contract into claws. But Renoir continued to work, at times tying his paintbrush to his hand so he could keep painting.
The artist had malignant RA, meaning the disease had spread beyond the joints to affect the skin, nerves, blood vessels, and even the internal organs; the disease contributed to his death at 78.
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The French songstress suffered from a host of health problems, including severe, crippling RA, which may have contributed to her dependence on morphine and other painkillers.
The 2007 Piaf biopic, La Vie en Rose, illustrated her struggle with the disease, which first struck in her early 30s.
The actress learned she had severe RA in her mid-40s, in 1993.
In her 2008 autobiography, Send Yourself Roses, she described how the illness wiped out her sex life and led to her dependence on alcohol. Turner says exercise has helped her cope with the illness, while medication is keeping it under control. The Body Heat star urges others who suspect they might have RA to act quickly, and get a blood test for RA factor. "The earliest you can test for arthritisdo it," she told USA Today in 2001. "It’s just a simple blood test."
While RA affects 2.5 times as many women as men, that doesn’t mean men don’t get the diseaseincluding macho movie stars. After starring in a string of Westerns and spy movies in the '60s and '70s, James Coburn temporarily retired from film in the 1980s, due to his RA.
But in the 1990s he was able to act again, winning an Oscar in '98 for playing Nick Nolte’s abusive, alcoholic father in Affliction. Backstage at the awards, Coburn claimed that a drug called MSM and a holistic treatment regimen had "cured" his RA. He died of a heart attack in 2002.
"This incredibly brilliant British woman was a pioneer in X-ray crystallography," says Dr. Hadler. "She went into the hardest of the hard sciences." Hodgkin used the then-new scientific techniquewhich combines math, physics, and chemistryto identify the three-dimensional structure of important biological molecules, including penicillin and insulin. She won the 1964 Nobel Prize in chemistry for describing the structure of vitamin B12.
Even after her lifelong RA had crippled her hands and feet, she kept traveling and advocating for the causes she supported, including world peace and disarmament, until her death at 84.
Peter Paul Rubens
The famous seventeenth-century Flemish artist may have had rheumatoid arthritis. Rubens complained of “gouty rheumatism,” which left him bedridden at times, but some experts believe his symptoms were more likely due to RA.
Also, the hands of people in the paintings he made in the last 30 years of his life appear to show the characteristic swelling and deformity of progressive RA.
Dr. Hadler, however, believes this "is a stylistic issue, and not a depiction of swollen joints."
The baseball great stopped pitching because of injury to his elbow, and is widely said to have RA. However, Dr. Hadler says the X-rays of Koufax he has seen don’t support this diagnosis, instead indicating degenerative arthritis.
"Very few human beings can do with their elbow what he did," Dr. Hadler says. Muddying the waters, he adds, is the fact that Koufax had back pain later in his life due to a condition called rheumatoid spondylitis.
"He clearly had a rheumatoid inflammatory disease," he says. "I’m not sure that we ought to just announce he has RA."
Famous for performing the first human-to-human heart transplant in 1967, the South African ended his surgical career in 1983 when RA in his hands made it impossible for him to continue operating. Barnard was first diagnosed with RA in 1956.
An outspoken critic of apartheid, he said he never won the Nobel Prize because he was "a white South African."
The prolific Fauvist painter became ill with RA in 1935, when gold salts were the main treatment for the disease. After an article in Life magazine brought his illness to the world’s attention, he was invited to Boston in 1950 to participate in a trial of corticosteroids.
The therapy gave him more energy and renewed his appetite. Dufy even painted a work he called "La Cortisone," which he gifted to the drug company developing the medication.
The artist continued to take steroids for the rest of his life, and continued to feel betterand experience the side effects that now make steroid therapy a stopgap, rather than the cure it was initially thought to be.