Did Harriet Tubman have epilepsy?

  • February 10, 2021
  • 3
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Harriet Tubman is one of the United States’ greatest historical heroes. Born into slavery around 1820, Tubman went on to help hundreds of slaves escape to freedom in the North and Canada. She was also a Civil War hero, promoted women's voting rights and ran a home for elderly African Americans. Harriet Tubman’s epilepsy was also an important part of her personal story.

Let's learn more about this brave and inspiring individual - and also find out why Harriet Tubman had seizures.  

Harriet Tubman’s accomplishments

Harriet Tubman was born to enslaved parents around 1820 in Dorchester County, MD (her exact birth date is unknown) and was one of nine children. Her birth name was Araminta Harriet Ross, but she later changed her first name to Harriet. In 1844 she married a free black man named John Tubman.

Harriet’s life was very hard, and she was frequently the victim of physical violence from slave owners.

In 1849 she escaped slavery following the ‘Underground Railroad’, a network of safehouses used by former slaves to escape the South under cover of darkness, finally reaching Philadelphia.

While she could have remained in the safety of the North, Tubman chose to return to the South, guiding hundreds of other fleeing slaves through the Underground Railroad. This extraordinary bravery earned her the nickname Moses (like the Bible character who led the Israelites from Egypt).

During the Civil War, Tubman worked as a cook and a nurse for the Union Army. But soon her knowledge of the South was called on, and she worked as a spy finding out about Confederate positions. She even guided the Combahee River Raid, an action which liberated 700 slaves in South Carolina.

In later life, Tubman pushed for women’s right to vote and also ran a home for elderly African Americans. She died in 1913 in Auburn, New York.

Why did Harriet Tubman have seizures?

Harriet Tubman began having seizures after a traumatic brain injury when she was around 12 years old. She was hit in the head by a two-pound iron weight that an angry overseer had thrown at a fleeing slave, accidentally striking Harriet instead.  

She received no medical treatment for this injury and was forced to go back to work almost immediately. The brain damage meant she experienced headaches and pain throughout her life as well as seizures and possibly narcolepsy (falling asleep uncontrollably). Harriet also experienced visions which she described as being sent by God.

Did Harriet Tubman have epilepsy?

The truth is that we don't know for sure if Harriet Tubman had epilepsy, because people’s understanding of the condition was relatively limited during her lifetime. However, descriptions of her episodes do sound like they were epileptic seizures, and people have speculated she had temporal lobe epilepsy with absence seizures.

In her official biography published in 1869, Harriet’s seizures were described as follows: “a sort of stupor or lethargy at times; coming upon her in the midst of conversation, or whatever she may be doing, and throwing her into a deep slumber, from which she will presently rouse herself, and go on with her conversation or work”.

Learn more: What is temporal lobe epilepsy?

An American icon

And Harriet Tubman’s incredible life continues to inspire us today. The 2019 movie Harriet told her dramatic story, and, as of January 2021, there are even plans to feature her face on a $20 bill – meaning even more people will become aware of her contribution to American history.

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