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Did Harriet Tubman Have Narcolepsy?

Written by Joan Grossman
Posted on June 12, 2023

Harriet Tubman is best remembered for her courageous work with the Underground Railroad, which helped an estimated 100,000 enslaved people escape to freedom during the mid-1850s and through the early days of the Civil War. The Underground Railroad wasn’t an actual train but rather a network of trails, waterways, roads, and safe houses that were used to discreetly transport slaves from Confederate states in the South to free states in the North. As a leading figure in the effort to shepherd people to freedom, Tubman was known as “the Moses of her people.”

Harriet Tubman was an abolitionist and humanitarian who escaped slavery and helped free hundreds of others through the Underground Railroad. Historians believe she may have developed narcolepsy following a traumatic brain injury.


Tubman was a devoted abolitionist, who later served in the Union Army during the Civil War as a spy, soldier, and nurse. After the Civil War, she worked as part of the women’s suffrage movement to give women the right to vote.

An escaped slave herself, Tubman endured hardship, danger, racism, and abuse. Some people believe that Harriet Tubman also had narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a neurological sleep disorder in which the brain cannot properly regulate sleep cycles, causing excessive daytime drowsiness. Some people with narcolepsy also experience cataplexy, which causes the muscles to suddenly become weak.

Tubman’s Traumatic Brain Injury

Tubman was named Araminta Ross when she was born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland, around 1822. (Exact birth records for enslaved people were not always kept.) As a child, she worked in the fields of a plantation. One day, around the age of 12 or 13, a plantation supervisor threw a 2 pound weight at another enslaved person who was trying to flee. The weight hit Tubman in the forehead, leaving her bloodied and unconscious.

Denied medical care, Tubman developed a forehead deformity and scar that is associated with a depressed skull fracture, in medical terms. Tubman later said that the injury would probably have killed her if her thick hair had not helped to cushion the blow.

After this traumatic head injury, Tubman experienced lifelong headaches and what was described at the time as “sleeping fits” that resembled a trancelike condition. After the injury, she also had vivid dreams that led her to become very religious. Some neurology experts now believe she was experiencing the symptoms of narcolepsy, while others think she may have had absence seizures, which can be caused by a brain injury and are linked to epilepsy.

Absence seizures can cause a sudden loss of consciousness, which can make it look like the person is blankly staring into space. Symptoms include eye fluttering and small hand movements. This type of seizure usually lasts 30 seconds or less.

It’s impossible to know for sure whether or not Tubman had narcolepsy, epilepsy, or another type of seizure. Historians know that Tubman experienced debilitating headaches and a “buzzing” in her head.

Interestingly, narcolepsy was first described in medical literature during Harriet Tubman’s life in articles that appeared in Germany in 1877 and 1878. In 1880, the term “narcolepsy” was used for the first time.

Treatment for Harriet Tubman

Late in her life in the 1890s, Tubman underwent brain surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Like other records, the exact year of Tubman’s surgery is in dispute. But what’s known is, as a Black woman and a former slave, Tubman had limited access to medical care for most of her life.

According to the biography “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero,” Tubman approached the hospital herself one day and asked for help because her headaches had worsened. “So I went right in, and I saw a young man there, and I said, ‘Sir, are you a doctor?’ and he said he was; then I said ‘Sir, do you think you could cut my head open?’” Tubman said, according to the biography. “Then I told him the whole story, and how my head was giving me a powerful sight of trouble lately, with achin’ and buzzin’, so I couldn’t get no sleep at night.”

Although there is no clear evidence of the long-term effect of the surgery, the procedure helped Tubman, at least temporarily. “I just lay down like a lamb before a slaughter and he sawed open my skull, and raised it up, and now it feels more comfortable,” she said, according to the biography.

Harriet Tubman died in 1913 in Auburn, New York, where she’d spent the later years of her life. She is a hero of American history, Black history, and civil rights, and her story and activism are inspirations for people everywhere.

The Importance of an Accurate Narcolepsy Diagnosis

Fortunately, in this day and age, health care is more accessible than it was in Tubman’s time. Advances in medical science can help ensure an accurate diagnosis for people with neurological symptoms that resemble narcolepsy.

If you or a loved one have symptoms that include sleep disturbance and persistent daytime drowsiness, talk to your doctor about narcolepsy. An accurate diagnosis is an essential step in getting effective treatment.

Find Your Team

MyNarcolepsyTeam is the social network for people with narcolepsy and their loved ones. On MyNarcolepsyTeam, more than 10,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with narcolepsy.

What was your experience in getting a diagnosis of narcolepsy? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    Posted on June 12, 2023
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    Luc Jasmin, M.D., Ph.D., FRCS (C), FACS is a board-certified neurosurgery specialist. Learn more about him here.
    Joan Grossman is a freelance writer, filmmaker, and consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. Learn more about her here.

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