The Eugene O’Neill Autopsy Project

Dr. E.P. Richardson and I, based on clinical and anatomic findings, traced Eugene O’Neill’s neurologic illness over the last 12 years of his life, during which his mind remained intact while his ability to write, to walk, and eventually to talk disintegrated. Using his own words and those of his wife, we reconstructed his struggle with the disease and their attempts to cope with it. We confirmed that he suffered from an idiopathic form of sporadic, late-onset spinal cerebellar atrophy, and that he had an essential familial tremor which began in his early 20’s with mild progression over time. We refuted the diagnosis of presumed Parkinson disease along with the assumption that alcoholism contributed to his eventual decline1. This five-year journalistic voyage, the “back story” of our Eugene O’Neill autopsy project, proved to be a remarkable confluence of multiple, seemingly random factors.

Sample 1 of O'Neill's Handwriting 1926

Samples of O’Neill’s Handwriting

FIG. 1—O’Neill’s handwriting was always cramped, as seen in a life-sized example from 1926.
It reads “Dear Carlotta: And your fine note did me more good than you can imagine! To know
that our luncheon meant something to you means a lot to me. This shoe is on my foot. I am the
one grateful. Yours Gene.”

Sample 2 of O'Neill's Handwriting 1945

FIG. 2—O’Neill’s handwriting in 1945, more than four years after the onset of his
degenerative cerebellar disease, demonstrates his deterioration. It reads, “My dearest
Beloved Wife: After the ‘afternoon grey and sandy’ may our evening be ‘yellow and rose’—
lest we forget! All my love, sweetheart, Gene. Christmas 1945.”

Sample 3 of O'Neill's Handwriting 1949

FIG. 3—This third letter shows O’Neill’s signature in October 1949. The note was probably
dictated by O’Neill and typed by his wife, Carlotta. As compared with the writing in the first two
examples, it shows further deterioration of his handwriting as his coordination and tremors worsened.