Essential Tremor is in the Roots of U.S. History

Essential tremor (ET), the most common movement disorder, has been recognized for thousands of years. Evidence – not always clear regarding situational or chronic tremors – is found in ancient writings from India to Egypt to the Biblical lands.i So it’s safe to say that ET has its place in history.

As we know, ET also shows up in family histories. About 50% of cases are familial, with ancestors and current family members alike living with the challenges of this progressive condition. Given this fact, it may come of no surprise that an illustrious family that includes Founding Fathers Samuel Adams and President John Adams, who were cousins, as well as John’s son, President John Quincy Adams brought ET to the roots of U.S. History.

The Adams family tremors

Samuel Adams was born in colonial Massachusetts in 1722. At the tender age of 14, he entered Harvard College and graduated four years later. By 1743, he has completed a Master’s degree there, and was interested in politics. He was elected to his first office in 1747 as a clerk of the Boston Market, and gradually advanced in politics from there. His patriotism took the form of leadership in opposition to the tyranny of the British Crown as manifest in its taxation of the colonies through the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, and the Townshend Acts. When the British occupied Boston in 1768, Samuel’s commitment to independence was sealed. By the time the first shot was fired at Lexington in 1775, he was considered treasonous by the British, and in danger of hanging. This did not dim his zeal. He and other delegates to the Continental Congress issued their Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and after the War of Independence he continued his political leadership, and helped frame the Massachusetts Constitution for statehood. While his conviction never wavered as he aged, his ability to draft documents did. “In 1781, Adams retired from the Continental Congress. His health was one reason; he was approaching his sixtieth birthday and suffered from tremors that made writing difficult.”ii

Samuel’s second cousin John Adams was thirteen years younger, but equally fervent about achieving independence from England. He likewise served as a delegate to the Continental Congress, and had a persuasive influence in the decision to separate from the mother country. He helped negotiate the eventual peace treaty with Britain, and while he was in Europe for that purpose he secured Dutch government loans. Eventually, he was elected as the first Vice President under George Washington, and then became the second U.S. President. Although little is written about his tremors, two scholars from Columbia U. analyzed his handwritten documents from his early work as a lawyer, as well as 62 years’ worth of correspondence and diaries. Starting with a diary entry when he was 25, they found:

…evidence of low-amplitude kinetic tremor. The tremor continued in his written correspondence, becoming more persistent over time. Later in life, the clarity of his written correspondence diminished, with greater decomposition of characters and a reduction in the size of individual characters. … The most likely diagnosis was essential tremor.iii

Interestingly, John referred to his tremors as “quiveration.” Knowing that ET existed in the family, this brings us to his son, John Quincy Adams. Sadly, the man who became the sixth U.S. President was more broadly afflicted than with tremors alone. In his younger years and into middle age, he wrote poetry, was an avid diarist, and was well-educated and widely traveled. He became a diplomat to Europe during Napoleon’s successful rise to power in the early 1800s. By 1818 he was Secretary of State under President Monroe, and was himself elected to the Presidency for one term in 1824. However, “illnesses of the brain” beset him, as we are told by G. Paulson, “John Quincy Adams, the sixth and perhaps most scholarly American president, served courageously despite familial essential tremor, depression, and cerebrovascular disease.”iv He returned to Congress after Andrew Jackson succeeded him as President, and continued despite a major stroke. Paulson concludes, “His fatal collapse in Congress, protesting the Mexican War, is legendary among the final illnesses of American statesmen.”

The Adams family members who are known to have had ET are an inspiration. Each of them handwrote prolific and foundational philosophies that shaped what the U.S. is today. Think about writing with a quill pen repeatedly dipped in ink – a task that might give pause to people today who live with even mild action tremors! Not only did they have the will and determination to continue their significant contributions to the birth and infancy of a nation, they did so (presumably) without today’s medications, beneficial exercises or physical therapy, or assistive devices.

The spirit of independence and will power – not just political but also personal – is a legacy of Samuel, John, and John Quincy Adams that we see reflected in our Essential Tremor Support and Awareness group on Facebook. If you or a loved one has essential tremor, please consider joining this welcoming community.



iiiLouis ED, Kavanagh P. John Adams’ essential tremor. Mov Disord. 2005 Dec;20(12):1537-42

ivPaulson G. Illnesses of the brain in John Quincy Adams. J Hist Neurosci. 2004 Dec;13(4):336-44.

About Dr. Dan Sperling

Dan Sperling, MD, DABR, is a board certified radiologist who is globally recognized as a leader in multiparametric MRI for the detection and diagnosis of a range of disease conditions. As Medical Director of the Sperling Prostate Center, Sperling Medical Group and Sperling Neurosurgery Associates, he and his team are on the leading edge of significant change in medical practice. He is the co-author of the new patient book Redefining Prostate Cancer, and is a contributing author on over 25 published studies. For more information, contact the Sperling Neurosurgery Associates.

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