George Huntington, On Chorea

Huntington

George Huntington (1850-1916) was a medical practitioner in Dutchess County New York.

His father and grandfather had both been doctors, and his family had lived on Long Island since 1797.

He gave his classic presentation, “On Chorea”, at the Meiga and Mason Academy of Medicine in Middleport Ohio in 1972, and this was subsequently published in the Medical and Surgical Reporter of Philadelphia on April 13, 1872.

This took place just one year after he graduated from his medical training at Columbia University.

He later explained his interest in the condition that now bears his name:

Over 50 years ago, in riding with my father on his rounds, I saw my first case of the “disorder”, which is the way the natives always referred to the dreaded disease.  I recall it as vividly as though it had just occurred but yesterday.  It made a most enduring impression on my boyish mind, an impression which was the very first impulse to my choosing chorea as my virgin contribution to the medical lore.  Driving with my father through a wooded road leading from East Hampton to Amagansett we suddenly came upon two women both bowing, twisting, grimacing.  I stared in wonderment, almost in fear.  What could it mean?  My father paused to speak with them and we passed on.  Then my Gamaliel-like instruction began; my medical instruction had its inception.  From this point on my interest in the disease has never wholly ceased.

Huntington’s disease (HD) is now know to be caused by a genetic mutation.  It is inherited in an autosomal dominant fashion, so that any child of an affected person typically has a 50% chance of inheriting the disease.  The mutation is a triplet repeat, so the genetics of HD lead to anticipation, a phenomenon whereby the disease may begin earlier and more severely in each successive generation.

HD can present at any age, but most often begins around 35-44 years with psychiatric disturbance such as depression or forgetfulness.  Neurological manifestations such as unsteady gait and the  jerky body movements (chorea) noted by George Huntington come later, followed by a progressive dementia.

Genetic testing is available, but pre-symptomatic testing for family members, who are at increased risk for the disease, is controversial since there is no treatment for HD.

Find out more about HD from the Huntington’s Disease Society of America.

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