From Leonardo da Vinci to Muhammad Ali: Learning and Thinking Differently in History

By The Understood Team
Email Email
Chat's logo Chat's logo

Did Leonardo da Vinci have dyslexia? Did ADHD cause Babe Ruth to focus on baseball? Historians say it’s possible many major figures from the past had learning and thinking differences. However, it’s hard to know for sure about people who lived 100 years ago or more. And for many—especially women and people of color—there aren’t enough records to let us guess. But here are some accomplished individuals who made a big impact on history, from centuries past to more recent times. They overcame challenges and may inspire your child to do the same.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)

As an artist, inventor, scientist, engineer, and writer, Leonardo da Vinci had many talents. He also had interesting habits, like writing backward, spelling strangely, and not following through on projects. Today, we understand that these traits can all be characteristics of dyslexia and other learning and thinking differences. For example, his ability to create imaginative drawings is a strength shared by some people with ADHD. Whether or not he had dyslexia or ADHD, Leonardo used his strengths to earn a place as one of history’s greatest geniuses.

Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922)

Bell reinvented the field of communications by creating the first telephone. But years earlier, he struggled in school. Even though he was gifted at problem solving, it’s thought that he had trouble reading and writing, possibly as a result of dyslexia. He was eventually homeschooled by his mother. With her help, Bell learned to manage his challenges. And he went on to change the world.

Thomas Edison (1847–1931)

School didn’t come easily for Edison, either. He was considered “difficult” and hyperactive. Historians believe he may have had ADHD and dyslexia. But his appetite for knowledge was huge. He developed effective ways to study and learn on his own. As a result, Edison’s unique way of tackling problems helped him make history. He shaped modern life by inventing the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the light bulb.

Henry Ford (1863–1947)

Industrial revolutionary Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company and transformed the transportation industry. Ford, who preferred hands-on learning to reading, may have had dyslexia. If he did have trouble with reading, it didn’t stop him from creating an industrial empire.

There also may be learning differences in his family. Ford’s great-granddaughter Anne (former chair of the board of the National Center for Learning Disabilities) writes and speaks about her daughter Allegra’s learning disabilities.

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)

According to many accounts, the world-famous artist may have had dyslexia. He expressed feelings that many kids who learn and think differently have. “Don’t think I didn’t try [to learn at school],” he said. “I tried hard. I would start but immediately be lost.” Fortunately, his father, an art teacher, encouraged him to develop his artistic talents. His unique vision of the world came through in his powerful works of art. The rest is art history.

Agatha Christie (1890–1976)

This famous writer’s mysteries had a big impact on how suspense stories were written in the 20th century and beyond. But historians think that Christie may have had trouble with reading and writing. They don’t know whether it was dysgraphia or dyslexia (or both). But they do know that she dictated all of her famous works, possibly because of learning differences. Those novels still rank among the world’s most popular books. And characters she created, like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, continue to entertain readers today.

Babe Ruth (1895–1948)

As a young child, baseball great George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr. always seemed to be running wild, getting into trouble, and fighting. That’s why his parents sent him to a strict boarding school that emphasized discipline, learning a trade, and sports. There, he discovered his love of baseball and honed his skills. Today historians believe that Ruth may have had ADHD. ADHD can make it hard to pay attention, but it can also lead people to focus on a topic they’re deeply engaged with. Maybe this helped Ruth become the “Sultan of Swat.”

Harry Belafonte (1927–)

Belafonte dropped out of school at 17 because of his trouble with reading. He was working as a janitor’s assistant when he discovered his love of theater. He started singing to pay for acting classes. That’s when his career took off. It wasn’t until his late 20s that he learned there might be a reason for his reading problems: dyslexia. The “King of Calypso,” Belafonte won a Tony and three Grammys, as well as the first Emmy to go to an African American. He helped break down racial barriers in entertainment in America. And he’s used his fame to support the civil rights movement and many other humanitarian causes.

Muhammad Ali (1942–2016)

One of the greatest boxers of all time, Ali struggled with dyslexia. He’s said he could barely read his high school textbooks. Nonetheless, he managed to graduate. He became an Olympic gold medalist at the age of 18. And he was world heavyweight boxing champion at 22. He’s also remembered today for having strong principles. He refused to fight in the Vietnam War, even though this damaged his career. And his determination inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Later in life, Ali worked to encourage more young African Americans to enjoy reading.

Carol Moseley Braun (1947–)

At the age of 8, Braun was bused across Chicago to an all-white school. Upset that she was put in the “dumb row,” she figured out ways to manage her dyslexia. She used a ruler to help her focus on words and numbers. And she re-read books and re-did math problems. A semester later, she was in the “smart row.” Her grit and determination later helped her become the first female African American senator. She later served as ambassador to New Zealand. Today she owns her own organic food company. And she’s worked to take away the stigma of dyslexia.

Erin Brockovich-Ellis (1960–)

When she was growing up, Brockovich-Ellis was teased by her classmates for having dyslexia. She was also told she would never make it through college. But she read through thousands of pages of legal documents to help bring a landmark case against a power company accused of polluting water in a small town. Even though she had no formal legal training, she helped win the largest settlement ever for a lawsuit of that kind: $333 million. Today, she continues her work as a consumer advocate. And she’s spoken out about her dyslexia and how it’s affected her.

About the Author

About the Author

The Understood Team 

is made up of passionate writers, editors, and community moderators. Many of them learn and think differently, or have kids who do.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Sheldon H. Horowitz, EdD 

is senior director of learning resources and research at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Did you find this helpful?

Stay Informed

Sign up for weekly emails containing helpful resources for you and your family.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Please wait...

By signing up, you acknowledge that you reside in the United States and are at least 13 years old, and agree that you've read the Terms and Conditions. Understood.org does not market to or offer services to individuals in the European Union.