The list of accomplished people who have lost a parent at a young age is startling and statistically uncanny.
In the 1970s, a clinical psychologist from Long Island named Martin Eisenstadt tracked the parental histories of every person who was eminent enough to have earned a half-page-long entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica— a roster of 573 subjects, spanning Homer to John F. Kennedy, a rich mix of writers, scientists, political leaders, composers, soldiers, philosophers, and explorers. Eisenstadt wasn’t interested in motivation per se; in fact, he was testing a theory he’d developed relating genius and psychosis to the loss of a parent or parents at an early age. But he wound up constructing an elegant demonstration of the relationship between motivation and primal cues.
Within this accomplished group the parental-loss club turned out to be standing room only. Political leaders who lost a parent at an early age include Julius Caesar (father, 15), Napoleon (father, 15), fifteen British prime ministers, Washington (father, 11), Jefferson (father, 14), Lincoln (mother, 9), Lenin (father, 15), Hitler (father, 13), Gandhi (father, 15), Stalin (father, 11), and (we reflexively paste in) Bill Clinton (father, infant). Scientists and artists on the list include Copernicus (father, 10), Newton (father, before birth), Darwin (mother, 8), Dante (mother, 6), Michelangelo (mother, 6), Bach (mother and father, 9), Handel (father, 11), Dostoyevsky (mother, 15), Keats (father, 8; mother, 14), Byron (father, 3), Emerson (father, 8), Melville (father, 12), Wordsworth (mother, 7; father, 13), Nietzsche (father, 4), Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë (mother at 5, 3, and 1, respectively), Woolf (mother, 13), and Twain (father, 11). On average, the eminent group lost their first parent at an average age of 13.9, compared with 19.6 for a control group. All in all, it’s a list deep and broad enough to justify the question posed by a 1978 French study: do orphans rule the world?
Why the connection? It’s theorized that the loss of a parent is a “primal cue” indicating the world is not safe and that a great outpouring of energy will be necessary to achieve safety:
The genetic explanation for world-class achievement is useless in this case, because the people on this list are linked by shared life events that have nothing to do with chromosomes. But when we look at parental loss as a signal hitting a motivational trigger, the connection becomes clearer. Losing a parent is a primal cue: you are not safe. You don’t have to be a psychologist to appreciate the massive outpouring of energy that can be created by a lack of safety; nor do you have to be a Darwinian theorist to appreciate how such a response might have evolved. This signal can alter the child’s relationship to the world, redefine his identity, and energize and orient his mind to address the dangers and possibilities of life— a response Eisenstadt summed up as “a springboard of immense compensatory energy.” Or as Dean Keith Simonton wrote of parental loss in Origins of Genius, “[S] uch adverse events nurture the development of a personality robust enough to overcome the many obstacles and frustrations standing in the path of achievement.”
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