ABSTRACT: Comments on an article on the correlation between
fourth-digit length and psychiatric depression. Description of the
1887 portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson featured in the article;
Medical history of Stevenson; Implication of the association of the
portrait to the article.
A Random Samples item of 20 August
(p. 1205) reports the interesting
correlation between fourth-digit length and psychiatric depression
recently described by Martin, Manning, and Dowrick (1). The Random
Samples item is illustrated with an 1887 portrait of Robert Louis
Stevenson by John Singer Sargent (which was reversed in reproducing).
This portrait clearly shows Stevenson's hands with his slender
fingers, the fourth digit the longest. The choice of Stevenson as an
example of a depressed individual can be questioned. Stevenson may
occasionally have been "moody," as stated, and he became transiently
and understandably depressed in 1873 when he was diagnosed with
tuberculosis; however, his constant literary productivity and genial
spirit throughout his subsequent years make a diagnosis of depressive
illness most unlikely. In his famous words, "Glad did [he] live."
Stevenson's fingers, so elegantly
portrayed by Sargent, are, however,
of potential interest to medical historians for another reason.
Stevenson had tuberculosis (2), but some have questioned this
diagnosis and have suggested that his recurrent symptom of spitting up
blood from his lungs was due to bronchiectasis (3). However,
bronchiectasis is commonly associated with clubbed fingers, which
Sargent's portrait demonstrates Stevenson did not have; tuberculosis
is not or only rarely associated with clubbed fingers.
PHOTO (COLOR): John Singer Sargent's
portrait of Robert Louis
Stevenson (printed here in its proper orientation).
(1.) S. M. Martin, J. T. Manning,
C. F. Dowrick, Evol. Hum. Behav. 20,
(2.) T. M. Daniel, Captain of Death:
The Story of Tuberculosis (Univ.
of Rochester Press, Rochester, NY, 1997), pp. 106-112.
(3.) S. Taylor, "Dead man's chest,"
RLS Club News, March 1996.
©Copyright Daniel, Thomas M.Health, Center for International Health, Case Western Reserve
University School of Medicine, Cleveland, OH 44106-4978, USA. E-mail:
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Source: Science, 10/08/99, Vol. 286 Issue 5438, p239, 1/3p, 1c.
Item Number: 2379141