Right, Left, Right, Wrong! An investigation of handedness - some myths, truths, opinions and research

What is Handedness?
Measuring Handedness
Handedness Statistics
Handedness and the Brain
Theories of Handedness ‣
Other Handedness Issues ‣
History of Handedness ‣
Famous Left-Handers ‣
A Few Final Thoughts
E-mail: lukem@lukemastin.com
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Famous Left-Handers
Many famous personalities often thought to be left-handed may actually not be
Most websites about left-handedness include some kind of list of famous left-handers, often as a centrepiece of the site, and as often as not purporting to “prove” in some way the superiority of left-handers and their statistical over-representation in world history and culture. Unfortunately, such ad hoc lists prove nothing and, in the absence of a comparable list of right-handers, do not actually substantiate the disproportionate presence of left-handedness in the history of the world.

Indeed, in some ways they serve to highlight the paucity of left-handers among the great scientists, philosophers, writers, explorers and female leaders. A quick check against a handful of commonly-used lists of the most influential people in history yields the (statistically expected) result that between about 10% and 15% are left-handers, although some lists include up to 25% left-handers (and this is based on the rather hopeful and inaccurate lists of left-handers in common currency on the Internet which, as I will show below, is a rather exaggerated and unsound measure in the first place).

Unreliability of Internet Lists

Unfortunately, many if not most of such lists are at best unreliable and at worst misleading, a problem exacerbated by the inherent difficulty of defining and measuring left-handedness (see the section on Measuring Handedness), and the unreliability and frequent inconsistency of biographical and historical data. The problem is compounded still further as many websites and blogs unthinkingly copy errors and fallacies willy-nilly, thus perpetuating the Internet’s already shaky “conventional wisdom”. Some lists also stretch the definition of “important” and “famous” somewhat, in the interests (presumably) of padding them out or making them seem more impressive.

In my list, have had to make some editorial decisions on who to include and who to exclude, some of which will no doubt be contentious. I have tried to avoid errors by researching further, looking for firm evidence, and by taking the most convincing (rather than the consensus) position. For example, vague “rumours” should not be considered evidence. More details on some individual cases can be found in the sections on Handedness and Music, Handedness and Artistic Ability, Handedness and Intellect, Handedness and Military Leadership, Handedness and Sport, Handedness and Politics, etc.

It does sometimes seem that the more one looks into many of the claims for the left-handedness of famous people, the weaker such claims become, but my intention here is not right-handed evangelism but balance and integrity. More than anything, the whole exercise has served to bring home just how difficult it is to define handedness, and to assess the handedness of even well-known, contemporary and highly public figures. I have no doubt that errors still exist in this list, although it seems quite likely that the errors may well occur in both directions.

Inclusions and Exclusions

Many well-known names regularly appear as left-handers, at various times and in various publications, despite documentary evidence which seems to prove conclusively that they are, or were, right-handed. These include: Rembrandt van Rijn, Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Benjamin Britten, Bob Dylan, Glen Campbell, Robert Plant, Mark Twain, James Michener, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Linus Pauling, Sigmund Freud, Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Munroe, Robert de Niro, Jim Carrey, Sylvester Stallone, River Phoenix, Ben Hogan and Romário. I have excluded these from my list.

There is a much longer list of famous people who are often claimed to be left-handed, but where the evidence for this appears wholly insufficient (and often it is difficult to know just where assertions of their left-handedness actually originate). This list includes: Raphael, Peter Paul Rubens, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Serge Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, Enrico Caruso, Pablo Casals, Carly Simon, Sting, Celine Dion, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, H.G. Wells, Lewis Carroll, Franz Kafka, Germaine Greer, Ramses II, Simón Bolívar, Otto von Bismarck, Gen. George Patton, Fidel Castro, King Louis XVI, King George II, King George IV, King Edward VIII, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, John F. Kennedy, Colin Powell, Clarence Darrow, Bobby Fischer, Greta Garbo, Betty Grable, George Burns, Danny Kaye, Ginger Rogers, Rex Harrison, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Terry-Thomas, Terence Stamp, Peter Ustinov, Shirley MacLaine, Woody Harrelson, Pierce Brosnan, Gary Oldman, Mickey Rourke, Kenneth Branagh, Joel Coen, Marcel Marceau, David Letterman, Steve Forbes, Isaac Newton, Albert Schweitzer, Alan Turing, Neil Armstrong, Gerhard Berger, Johann Cruyff, Pele, Bobby Charlton, Mike Tyson and Joe Frazier. In the absence of any compelling evidence for inclusion, I have stuck my neck out here and excluded them from my list, but if anyone can provide some convincing evidence as to why any of these people should be included, I will happily consider them.

There is even some quite compelling evidence that several of the poster boys of left-handedness, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Albrecht Dürer, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Joan of Arc, Henry Ford and Aristotle, may actually have been right-handed (see the sections on Handedness and Artistic Ability, Handedness and Intellect and Handedness and Military Leadership for more details). Nevertheless, in the interests of keeping the peace and avoiding what might appear to be a "witch-hunt", I have included these in my list (with the qualification “Debatable”) until further more convincing proof to the contrary arises.

For much the same reason, I have included many sportsmen (e.g. Rafael Nadal, Marvin Hagler, Manny Paquaiao, Phil Mickelson, Mike Weir, etc) who play their sports left-handed but are right-handed in every other respect, as well as those (e.g. Oscar de la Hoya, Arnold Palmer, etc) who play their sports right-handed, but are left-handed for most other purposes. But, even here, the issue is far from clear: Maria Sharapova, for example, self-asserts that she is "naturally a lefty", but she now plays right-handed (sometimes switches temporarily when needed) and appears to be right-handed in other respects.

Likewise, there are many movie and TV stars (e.g. Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx, Robert Redford, Steve McQueen, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, etc) who are widely reported to be left-handed, even though they have been widely photographed writing with their right hand and perform many other basic tasks right-handed. I have not spent further time and effort in trying to disprove their left-handedness, merely noted in my list that they write right-handed.


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Introduction | What is Handedness? | Measuring Handedness | Handedness Statistics | Handedness and the Brain | Theories of Handedness | Other Handedness Issues | History of Handedness | Famous Left-Handers | A Few Final Thoughts | Sources
© 2012 Luke Mastin