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What made Pio Pico so feo?

THE NATION

California's last Mexican governor was famously hard on the eyes. A neurologist thinks he knows why.

July 19, 2008|Karen Kaplan | Times Staff Writer

It's a good thing Pio Pico served as California's governor long before the age of television -- his broad forehead, bulbous nose and protruding jaw prompted the author Gertrude Atherton to observe in 1902 that "an uglier man than Pio Pico rarely had entered this world."

Now a neurologist believes he knows why Pico was so hard on the eyes: He probably suffered from acromegaly, a metabolic disorder that causes cartilage and soft tissues in the face and extremities to grow grotesquely large.

Dr. Ivan S. Login, a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, began speculating about Pico's condition six years ago after receiving a postcard from his daughter, who was vacationing in San Diego.

The 1852 daguerreotype shows Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, in a three-piece suit and bow tie. But the dapper clothes don't mask his exaggerated features.

"When you see one person who's got that, you recognize it forever," Login said. "As soon as I saw that postcard, I knew exactly what was wrong with that man."

Login suspected the cause was a benign tumor of the pituitary gland in the brain, which causes the excess production of growth hormone. He and his daughter consulted more than a dozen historians and searched for more images of Pico, who served two terms as governor in the 1830s and 1840s.

After examining an oil painting from 1847 and a photograph taken in 1858, the neurologist found other telltale signs of acromegaly. Pico's left eyeball was out of sync with his right, probably because the tumor compressed the nerves controlling eyeball movement. He had also lost the ends of his eyebrows, a sign that the tumor prevented Pico's pituitary gland from producing normal amounts of testosterone.

That lack of testosterone may have also made him impotent, according to Login's report published this month in the journal Pituitary. Though large families were common at the time, Pico and his wife, Maria, apparently had no biological children.

In photos taken when Pico was in his 80s, the ex-governor's fingers were slender and his face appeared normal. A bushy beard suggested his pituitary gland had regained normal function.

Login said he suspects the tumor died on its own after becoming too big for its blood supply sometime after Pico turned 57, allowing him to father children with other women after his wife died.

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karen.kaplan@latimes.com

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