Howard Hughes was one of the most intriguing personalities in American history. He was an aviator, engineer, and successful business tycoon. He also suffered from a fear of germs phobia and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in a time when these types of mental illnesses were not understood as they are today. The following information describes the early life of Howard Hughes, his many professional accomplishments, and how OCD interfered with his life.
The Early Life of Howard Hughes
The Howard Hughes biography begins in Keokuk, Iowa where he was born on December 24, 1905. His father, Howard Hughes Sr., was a successful businessman and inventor. Geneastar.org describes how Hughes showed great aptitude at a young age, especially in the areas of technology and engineering. He even built a radio transmitter when he was only 11 years-old. His mother, Allene Hughes, died from medical complications in 1922. His father died two years later of a heart attack. These deaths apparently motivated Hughes to later establish a medical research laboratory. Hughes inherited his father’s vast wealth and started out in life with enough money to pursue his interests and invest in various projects.
His Successful Career and Professional Life
About Education states that Hughes went to Hollywood in 1925 and started making movies. The third movie he made, Two Arabian Knights, won an Oscar. The following are some of his many professional accomplishments throughout his lifetime.
- In 1930 he produced Hell’s Angels, a World War I epic motion picture.
- In the 1930s he founded his own aircraft company.
- Hughes broke Lindbergh’s New York to Paris record and piloted around the globe.
- He won the All American Air Meet in Miami in 1934.
- He won several other aviation awards including the Harmon Trophy and the Collier Trophy.
- In 1939 he bought a majority of TWA stock.
- Hughes amassed large quantities of real estate, especially in the Las Vegas area.
His Battle with Mental Illness
According to the American Psychological Association, Hughes struggle with germ phobia was an extreme and overwhelming aspect of his life. As early as the 1930s friends reported that he obsessively sorted his peas by size. In understanding what was wrong with Howard Hughes an individual needs to realize how obsessive compulsive disorders as well as a phobia can control and dominate a person’s life. The Royal College of Psychiatrists in London discusses that the film The Aviator does an excellent job of describing events throughout the life of Hughes that may have contributed to his OCD. His phobia of germs may have developed when he was still young and was heavily influenced by his mother’s fear of diseases.
According to the BBC, by the early 1940s Hughes obsession with germs began to dominate his life. He was wealthy enough that he could pay his staff to carry out rituals that were related to his obsession. The following are some of the things his staff were required to do.
- Before handing a spoon to Hughes, servants were required to wrap the utensil in tissue paper and cellophane tape.
- When removing his hearing aid cord from the bathroom the staff was required to use six to eight tissues to turn the bathroom door knob.
- Up to fifteen tissues were required before opening cabinet doors in the bathroom.
Who Was Howard Hughes?
Even though his obsessive compulsive symptoms fluctuated throughout his life, he seemed to be happiest and at ease when flying his planes. It’s been speculated that when he had to completely focus on flying the plane, his symptoms became less apparent. This has given researchers insight into treatment that focuses on patients becoming absorbed in an activity and therefore distracted and not focusing on their obsessions. His love for flying, ironically, may have contributed to his obsessions. Hughes was in a near fatal plane crash in 1946 that likely triggered some of his fears as well as contributed to his eventual dependence on codeine.
The Legacy of Howard Hughes
In spite of Howard Hughes mental illness struggles he accomplished much in his life and founded a medical institute that is still operating today. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, located in Chevy Chase, Maryland, was founded in 1953. By the mid 1980s the institute was focusing on four general areas of research. These included genetics, immunology, neuroscience, and cell biology. The Promenade at the Howard Hughes Center is located in Los Angeles and features an outdoor entertainment center, dinning, and shops. It is part of a business campus that also includes space for offices, retail, and health complexes.
What happened to Howard Hughes at the end of his life is a tragic case of extreme mental illness that went untreated. During the last several years of his life Hughes went for days without sleep and existed on a very limited diet. He was so unrecognizable that fingerprints were used to identify his body. He died in Texas in April 1976. Hughes lived in a time when mental illness, and in particular phobias and OCD, was not well understand. Those who lived around this brilliant yet troubled man likely asked themselves many times, who is Howard Hughes? That question, while still complex, is easier to answer today in light of scientific and medical advancements. Today there are several treatment options available to treat phobias as well as obsessive compulsive disorder.