The Curious Case of Charles Osborne, Who Hiccupped for 68 Years Straight
A 1922 accident sparked the Iowa man’s intractable hiccups, which suddenly subsided in 1990
Kevern Koskovich has fond childhood memories of walking through his hometown of Anthon, Iowa, and chatting with the friendly local who loved sitting on a bench at a major street corner.
Named Charles Osborne, the man had an unusual manner of speaking designed to conceal the sound of his constant hiccupping, recalls Koskovich, now 73. He’d had plenty of practice: Ever since an accident on June 13, 1922, Osborne had hiccupped nonstop. The condition persisted for more than six decades, only ending in 1990, a full 68 years after it began. Osborne’s plight remains the longest attack of hiccups confirmed by Guinness World Records.
Born in 1893, Osborne started hiccupping after an incident involving a hog. At the time, the young man was working on a farm near Union, Nebraska.
“I was hanging a 350-pound hog for butchering,” Osborne told People magazine in 1982. “I picked it up and then I fell down. I felt nothing, but the doctor said later that I busted a blood vessel the size of a pin in my brain.” (The doctor in question, Terence Anthoney, posited that Osborne’s fall destroyed a small area in the brain stem that inhibits the hiccup response.)
On average, Osborne experienced 20 to 40 involuntary diaphragm spasms per minute. In total, he hiccupped an estimated 430 million times before his death in May 1991 at age 97.
Though Osborne traveled long distances to visit an array of doctors, none could find a cure. According to the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Argus Leader, a physician at the Mayo Clinic managed to stop the hiccups by placing him on carbon monoxide and oxygen, but the treatment had a (literally) fatal flaw: namely, that Osborne couldn’t safely breathe in the poisonous gas. Instead, he had to settle for learning a breathing technique that minimized the characteristic “hic” sound, which is caused by the sudden closure of the vocal cords after an involuntary contraction. To suppress the noise, Osborne breathed in between hiccups.
“He’d flex his chest three or four times every minute,” says Koskovich, who knew one of Osborne’s sons and now lives in nearby Correctionville, Iowa. “You could tell he was hiccupping, but he wouldn’t make any noise. He heaved—that’s the best way to describe it.”
Koskovich remembers Osborne as a jovial, fun-loving guy who didn’t talk about his condition and enjoyed joking around with people. Osborne often greeted acquaintances by asking, “What the hell’s going on?”
“He was a character,” says Koskovich, whose wife, Kate, is an officer at the Rural Woodbury County Historical Society.
Ali Seifi, a neurosurgeon at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio who invented a device that instantly relieves hiccups, theorizes that Osborne sustained a minor injury to the ribs during his 1922 accident. The lower ribs are attached to the diaphragm, a muscle between the chest and belly that contracts to create hiccups. A damaged diaphragm may have been responsible for the endless hiccupping.
Another possibility, according to Seifi, is that Osborne hit his head and had a stroke. As Diana Greene-Chandos, a neurologist at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, told Prevention in 2015, prolonged, painful hiccups that come out of nowhere can be a sign of a stroke, particularly when paired with symptoms such as chest pain and dizziness.
Most of the time, a bout of the hiccups—triggered by actions such as drinking too much alcohol or soda, eating too much, getting excited, or swallowing air when chewing gum—lasts just a few minutes and is more inconvenient than medically concerning. But some hiccups continue for more than 48 hours, at which point they’re considered chronic or persistent. In rare cases like Osborne’s, hiccups can last more than a month, becoming intractable.
Per WebMD, intractable hiccups affect 1 in 100,000 people and can result in severe exhaustion and weight loss. The causes of long-lasting hiccups are wide-ranging and, in some cases, difficult to pinpoint; they include nerve damage, central nervous system disorders, alcoholism, diabetes, undergoing anesthesia and cancer. (In the 2000s, Chris Sands of Lincolnshire, England, experienced hiccups for around three years; doctors eventually concluded that a brain tumor was the culprit behind the contractions.) Treatments for the condition vary in both scope and effectiveness.
“[T]he insomnia from having hiccups all night can be incredibly distressing, and then—not surprisingly—if you haven’t slept for two to three weeks, you can become depressed and anxious,” Camielle Rizzo, a physician at Middlesex Hospital in Connecticut, told U.S. News & World Report in 2018.
Seifi’s invention, HiccAway, was featured on the latest season of the reality television show “Shark Tank.” Users simply suck water through the bent, straw-like device, for instant hiccup relief. (HiccAway is designed for simple hiccupping bouts, not chronic or intractable cases.) The device works much like a folk cure for hiccups: drinking water through a paper towel.
“When you drink through a paper towel, … you suction that water with more force,” says Seifi. “Forceful suction means that the diaphragm is fully pulling down to make a vacuum in the chest to let water be suctioned through your mouth.”
That forceful pulling down of the diaphragm can break the cycle of spasms, says Seifi, who started his career as an anesthesiologist and often encountered patients who were frustrated by chronic hiccups after surgery. Now a neurointensivist specializing in strokes and traumatic brain injuries, Seifi has a few patients who have been hiccupping for 10 to 12 years. Typically, he notes, the roughly 5,000 people hospitalized for hiccups every year have been hiccupping more than 48 hours.
Despite advances in modern medicine, a century after Osborne’s malady began, a lasting treatment for prolonged hiccupping continues to elude. According to Seifi, doctors sometimes use sedatives that temporarily stop hiccups as a side effect, but these medicines make patients sleepy. Ultimately, treatments often come down to doctors’ personal experience or anecdotal evidence.
In 1978, Osborne—who’d by then been hiccupping for 56 years—told the Associated Press (AP) that he’d “give everything I got in the world if I could get rid of them.” He added, “I don’t know what it would be like not to have them. I get so sore jerking all the time.”
Around the time of the AP interview, Osborne’s hiccups started garnering national attention. He was listed in Guinness World Records and made appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and the reality television show “That’s Incredible.” (Toward the beginning of his affliction, in 1936, Osborne also appeared on Robert Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” radio show.) The publicity led to an influx of letters from thousands of sympathetic viewers, many of whom offered their own suggestions for curing the hiccups. But none offered more than a brief reprieve.
All things considered, Osborne led a relatively normal life. “Charles Osborne has not only survived; he has thrived,” wrote columnist Bob Davis for the Sioux City Journal in 1984. He married twice and had eight children. (Family members contacted by Smithsonian magazine declined to be interviewed for this piece.) He made a living by selling farm machinery and auctioning off livestock.
Starting in the early 1970s, Osborne had to put his meals through a blender: “I’ve worn out two Osterizers,” he lamented to People in 1982. Still, he managed to keep his weight steady, often blending chicken, dressing, broth and milk for lunch and following the concoction up with several beers.
For reasons unknown, Osborne’s hiccups suddenly stopped in 1990. He died around a year later, in May 1991, after what must have been a blissfully hiccup-free few months.