Did you know American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin had psoriasis? It’s true!

He wrote detailed accounts of his psoriasis, which first appeared on his head in the early 1770’s, when Franklin was in his 60’s. This coincided with some of the most momentous events in American history. Franklin’s psoriasis troubled him, for example, during the time he helped draft the Declaration of Independence, and during his years in France when he secured French support for the Revolutionary War.

Franklin referred to his psoriasis as a “troublesome disorder” and wrote that its duration and tendency to spread “alarm’d” him. Two hundred fifty years later, those words still ring true to millions of people with psoriasis.

Franklin is something of a celebrity icon for Psoriasis Cure Now. Back in 2006, for Franklin’s 300th birthday that January 17, we had a Benjamin Franklin “look-alike” walk the Halls of Congress handing out psoriasis fact sheets. And when we give out awards to Members of Congress, they feature busts of Franklin’s head, replicas of an original made during the years he was battling psoriasis. (For more on our work with Franklin, see the history of Psoriasis Cure Now.)

Ben Franklin remains a giant in American history, a major figure in world history, and should serve as an inspiration to everyone battling psoriasis, that it need not hold us back.

Below are Franklin’s complete writings on psoriasis. If you would like shorter excerpts with commentary, see: Ben Franklin & Psoriasis: Then and Now.

Franklin’s accounts follow:

Franklin’s Journal of His Health [end note 1]
Oct. 4, 1778 – Jan. 16, 1780
“The Papers of Benjamin Franklin,” Vol. 27, pages 496 – 499.
Yale University Press.

… I was sometimes vex’d with an Itching on the Back, which I observ’d particularly after eating freely of Beef. …

[In the early 1770’s] I first observ’d a kind of Scab or Scurff on my head, about the Bigness of a Shilling. Finding it did not heal, but rather increas’d I mention’d it to my Friend Sir J.P. [end note 2] who advis’d a mercurial Water to wash it, and some Physic. It slowly left that Place but appear’d in other Parts of my Head. …

[In 1776] I went to Canada. On the passage I suffer’d much from a number of large Boiles. In Canada my Legs swell’d and I apprehended a Dropsy. Boils continu’d and harrass’d me after my Return, but the Swelling of my Legs pass’d off. The Boils however left round them a kind of dry Scab or Scurfiness, which being rubb’d off appear’d in the Form of white Bran. …

In my Passage to France Nov. 1776 I lived chiefly on Salt Beef, the Fowls being too hard for my Teeth. But being poorly nourish’d, I was very weak at my Arrival; Boils continu’d to vex me, and the Scurff extending over all the small of my Back, on my Sides, my Legs, and my Arms, besides what continued under my Hair, I apply’d to a Physician, who order’d me Bellosto’s Pills and an Infusion of a Root…. I took the Infusion a while, but it being disagreable, and finding no Effect I omitted it. I continu’d longer to take the Pills; but finding my Teeth loosning and that I had lost 3, I desisted the Use of them. I found that bathing stop’d the Progress of the Disorder. I therefore took the Hot Bath twice a Week two Hours at a time till this last Summer. It always made me feel comfortable, as I rubb’d off the softned Scurff in the warm Water; and I otherwise enjoy’d exceeding good Health. …

In July the Disorder began to diminish, at first slowly, but afterwards rapidly; and by the Beginning of October, it had quitted entirely my Legs Feet Thighs, and Arms, and my Belly, a very little was left on my Sides, more on the small of my Back, but the whole daily diminishing.

I observ’d that where there was no Redness under the Scurff, if I took it once off it did not return. I had hardly bath’d in those 3 Months. I took no Remedy whatever and I know not what to ascribe the Change to, unless it was the Heat of the Summer, which sometimes made me sweat, particularly when I exercis’d. I had five Boiles just before the Amendment commenc’d, which discharged a great deal of Matter. And once my Legs began to swell. …

[October 3rd] I ate no Breakfast, but a hearty Dinner, and at Night found my Back itch extreamly near the Shoulders which continues to day the 4th. I ate some Salted Beef at Dinner yesterday but not much. I wish the Cool Weather may not bring on a return of the Disorder.

Oct. 4. The Itching continues, but somewhat abated.

Oct. 6. Drank but one Glass of Wine to day; the Itching almost gone. I begin to think it will be better for me to abstain from Wine. My Dinner to day was Mutton boil’d and Fowl, with a good deal of Fruit.

Oct. 12. I have lately drank but little Wine. The Itching has not return’d. The Scurff continues to diminish. But yesterday I observ’d my Ancles swell’d. I suppose my having us’d no Exercise lately may be the Cause.

Jan. 14, 1779. The Swelling above mention’d continu’d some few Weeks, being greatest at Night, my Complexion at the same time not fresh; at length the Itching return’d, and a new Set of Eruptions of scurfy Spots appear’d in many Parts of my Body. My Back had never been entirely clear’d and the Scurf began to increase there and extend itself. But it is not yet so bad as it has been, and it seems to spare the parts that were before affected, except in my Back. The Swelling has left my Legs, which are now as dry and firm as ever, and I feel myself otherwise on perfect health, and have as much Vigour and Activity as can be expected at my Age. So that I begin to be more reconcil’d to this troublesome disorder, as considering it an Effort of nature to get rid of Peccant Matter, that might if not so discharg’d, break up my Constitution.

Feb. 28. 79. The Disorder on my Skin has continu’d augmenting. … A regular Fit of the Gout came on….

Jan. 16. 1780. I have enjoy’d good Health ever since the last Date. Towards the End of the Summer most of the Disorder in my Skin disappeared, a little only remaining on my left Arm, a little under each Breast, and some on the small of the Back. I had taken at different times a good deal of Dr. Pringle’s Prescription; but whether that occasion’d the Amendment, or whether it was the Heat of the Summer as I suppos’d in October 1778, I am uncertain. The disorder seems to be now increasing again, and appears upon my hands. I am otherwise well; my Legs sound; To-morrow I enter my 75th Year.

Franklin’s Description of His Ailments [end note 3]

Oct. 17, 1777 [end note 4]
“The Papers of Benjamin Franklin,” Vol. 25, pages 77-80.
Yale University Press.

[Franklin wrote this account in the third person, as it was to be taken by a friend of Franklin to London to get an expert’s opinion about treatment.]

… About 3 Years since he found a small Spot on his Head cover’d with a dry Scurff, which when rubb’d off from time to time, left always a Moisture on the Part that form’s another Scurf. This continuing some Months, and seeming to extend itself, alarm’d him, and he consulted Sir J.P. who prescrib’d a Water to wet the Part, and some Pills, which Prescription was follow’d, and the Disorder by slow Degrees quitted that Spot, but after some time show’d itself in other Parts of the Head.

The greatest Part of the Year 1775 he was almost every day 10 or 12 Hours of the Day employ’d in Business of Consultation with many other Persons sitting in a close Room, and had no Leisure for Exercise. During this time the Disorder spread, and affected his Head in a Number of small Spots under the Hair, the Scurf tho’ taken off from time to time by the Comb, returning continually. …

[Some people believe Franklin took to wearing a hat to cover up his scalp psoriasis.]

Towards the End of Winter 1776, he set out on a Journey of 500 Miles, of which great Part was perform’d in a small open Boat, where he was kept sitting without Exercise for many Days. During this Journey which continu’d from the Middle of March to the Beginning of June, he was afflicted with a Succession of Boils, sometimes two or three together, each when heal’d leaving round about it Spots of the same Scurff, which obstinately continu’d, being renew’d after every Removal. At this time his legs swell’d in the Small, and Impressions made by the Finger would continue long. This Swelling went away on his Return home, but the Boils continu’d to harass him.

In November 1776 he made a long Sea Voyage, in which the Disorder sensibly increas’d, and the Boils became more frequent. Part of each Arm, and of each side, the Small of his Back, and Parts of his Thighs and Legs, became cover’d with the Scurff, which became very troublesome, itching sometimes extremely, and when rubb’d or scratch’d off, would spot his Linen with Blood.

He consulted a Physician, who prescribed Belloste’s Pills, and an Infusion of a Root called Patience, or the Rhubarb of the Parisians. This Prescription was followed some time, till the Mouth began to have an unusual Quantity of Water in it, and the Teeth to be a little loosened. The Disorder was not diminished, but appeared not to increase.

He has for sometime omitted taking those Pills,[end note 5] but uses the warm Bath twice a Week, staying in the Water each time near two Hours, which are employ’d in rubbing off the Surff when softened by the Water, and so clearing the Skin. The Disorder has now visibly diminish’d; for in many Places after the Scurff has thus been repeatedly rubb’d off, it does not return, leaving the Skin soft and natural. But the Amendment is slow; and it is apprehended, that on a Discontinuance of the bathing, it may return and increase as before.

The Scurf appears to be compos’d of extreamly thin Scales one upon another, which are white, and when rubb’d off dry, are light as Bran. When the Skin is clear’d in the Bath, it looks red, and seems a little elevated above the sound Skin that is around the Place; but it is not sore: And in a few Hours after, it becomes dry, and feels stiffend even in warm Water. The fine Lamina seem to be formed one under another, and not to make an united thick Substance by adhering together. In rubbing them off they separate, like Talc, each having a Polish that shines.

His Head is now almost clear of the Disorder, as are also his Legs and Thighs, and it seems diminish’d on his Arms. But it holds its ground on the Small of his Back and his Side.

There were in the Heighth of it some small Spots on his Hands and Face, but they have quite disappear’d.

… He wishes to be inform’d Whether this troublesome Disease may not be of Service to him in other Respects?

Whether it be safe to cure it?

If so, what are the medicines to be used?

And what ought to be his Regimen?

Endorsed: Dr Franklin’s case written by him, and consulting me upon it.

1. [Yale editor’s note] The first section is largely a repetition of the description of ailments BF had sent to Pringle, via Ingenhousz, in October, 1777. See our annotation of that document, xxv, 77-80.
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2. [Yale editor’s note] John Pringle.
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3. [Yale editor’s note] While Ingenhousz was in Paris BF consulted him and, because the physician was on his way to London, wrote out this description for him to show Sir John Pringle for his advice: Bigelow, Works, vii, 335. We conjectured earlier that the principal ailment was psoriasis (above, xxii, 442 n). Its symptom is the scaling of the scalp and legs that BF describes; alcohol and a high-protein diet encourage the affliction. For this diagnosis we are indebted to Dr. Marguerite Lerner, professor emeritus of dermatology at Yale.
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4. Franklin wrote this from France on what happened to be the day the British army under John Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga, NY.
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5. [Yale editor’s note] This was fortunate; Dr. Lerner assures us that the mercury pills, invented by the famous surgeon Augustin Belloste, would in the long run have proved lethal. Patience, a concoction of rhubarb root, was used for skin trouble and many other ills.
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