I just finished reading a biography of Howard Hughes, and I would like to comment about the health aspects of his life. Unfortunately for him, the health aspects of his life are what people remember most about him- his becoming an eccentric, deranged recluse, obsessed about germs (while paradoxically neglecting his own personal hygiene) and sinking into ever-worsening mental illness. The medical consensus is that he suffered from severe Obsessive/Compulsive disorder, but that medical term did not exist during his lifetime. And towards the end of his life, he may have become paranoid schizophrenic. But rather than labeling him, it’s more important to figure out why he sank into such severe mental illness.
Some of it began early. The obsession about germs he inherited from his mother. She would frantically remove him from a school or summer camp because of sudden fear of his contracting polio or other disease. Some of his early obsessions seemed peculiar, but relatively harmless. For instance, peas were one of the few vegetables he would eat, but he only liked small ones. Large peas he considered inedible, and he invented a device by which he could measure the size of peas and separate the larger ones from the smaller ones, and he carried it with him always. However, the same obsessive/compulsive nature that sparked his early quirks and eccentricities also drove his larger ambitions: to become the greatest aviator, the greatest industrialist, the greatest film mogul, and the richest man in the world. He succeeded on the grandest scale in becoming one of the most influential and impactful figures of the 20th century, not only in spite of his obsessive/compulsive nature but probably because of it. A normal person would never even have conceived of doing the things that he did.
Howard Hughes was gifted. I would say that he was one in a million, but that would be a gross understatement. He was one in a hundred million, and I am speaking of his ability to grasp and learn and get things done. Formally, he had little education beyond high school. He took a few classes at a Rice University in Houston, and he sat in on some classes at Cal State Poly, but once his father died when Howard was 18, he took control of the Hughes Tool Company and that was the end of his formal education. Yet, he was intricately involved in the technical aspects of his many inventions- as much so as the scientists and engineers he employed. He was truly a genius and a visionary- as much so as Thomas Edison and Nicholas Tesla. And if his mental illness had not advanced, his productivity would probably have continued for many more years- to his and the world’s benefit.
So, the question is why did he deteriorate mentally and so badly? Here are the reasons.
First, as a young man, he contracted syphilis. It’s not known for sure how he got it, but he did consort with a lot of prostitutes early on. And it wasn’t the usual kind of dalliance. He hired them, not so much for his gratification, but to teach him sexual techniques. He decided that he wanted to become the greatest lover of all time and bed every beautiful Hollywood star and starlet, and he very nearly did it. But, without wanting to go off on a tangent, I have to say that syphilis is rather like AIDS in that the exact nature of the disease is controversial. And the treatment of syphilis, even during Howard Hughes’ time, was extremely harsh. Howard Hughes was treated with mercury and arsenic! Can you imagine? I have to wonder to what extent his brain damage was due to syphilis and to what extent it was due to the treatment he received for syphilis. One thing is for sure: the treatment did not help him.
Second, he suffered a total of 14 crashes, and that's including automobile and airplane. We could add a 15th head injury- the time that Ava Gardner clobbered him over the head with a heavy metal statuette, which landed him in the hospital. His worst accident was the crash of the experimental XF-11 spy plane. That time, a head concussion left him in a coma for days, and he very nearly died. He broke almost all his ribs and had other fractures, including a skull fracture, plus a collapsed lung, and he was badly burned over much of his body.
Third, as a direct result of the above accident, he started taking opiates and other drugs for pain, particularly codeine. He resisted it at first. He prided himself on being a clean liver. He never smoked, and he abhorred smoking, even among his women, including Katherine Hepburn. He drank alcohol socially, but he was never an alcoholic, and he eventually gave up alcohol completely. He never used recreational drugs, such as marijuana and cocaine, which were popular in Hollywood, even then. In the end, codeine addiction debilitated him as much or more than anything else.
Fourth, he was a lifelong insomniac. At first, he did not take drugs for it; he just stayed up. But eventually, he began taking Seconal (which is a harsh barbiturate, no longer in common medical use) and Librium (which was the very first benzodiazepine). Howard Hughes is another good example of the fact that, as bad as insomnia is, it’s better to live with it than to take drugs for it.
Fifth, and finally, Howard Hughes deteriorated because of subterfuge and chicanery. He came to rely on one William Gay who put together the so-called “Mormon Mafia” which comprised Hughes’ inner circle in his final years. They kept him dangerously plied with Codeine, Librium, and Valium all the time, precisely to control him and his vast empire to their own benefit. After Hughes' death in 1976, criminal charges were filed against members of the Mormon Mafia by the government of Mexico (where Hughes was living at the time of his death) and by at least one state government (Nevada). But nothing came of it other than some fines. No one did any jail time. The final coroner’s report revealed that Hughes died of: codeine poisoning (there was enough codeine in his system to kill 5 people) starvation (he was well over 6 feet tall and weighed only 90 pounds) and kidney failure (which was undoubtedly caused by the drugs).
So, what are the health lessons to be learned from the life of Howard Hughes? One, pick your parents wisely because his mother, like him, suffered with mental illness; Two, stay away from prostitutes and unsafe sex; Three, protect your noggin; Four, don't rely on drugs for sleep no matter how bad it gets; Fifth, be wary of doctors, because the fact is that the Mormon Mafia could not have laced Hughes with drugs without prescriptions; licensed medical doctors were involved, just as in the cases of Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Judy Garland, Anna Nicole Smith, Heath Ledger, and so many others. And finally, don’t trust anybody with your health. Always be in charge of your own health. Some things you delegate. Your health, you don’t.