The Man Who Was Struck By Lightning Seven Times

Roy Cleveland Sullivan (1912-1983) was a park ranger in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Between 1942 and 1977, Sullivan was hit by lightning seven times, which earned him an immortal place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

For this accomplishment, Sullivan was nicknamed “The Human Lightning Rod,” and others began to avoid him and the places that he frequented. Below we list the seven lightning strikes he endured.

Lightning Striking the Eiffel TowerPhoto: unknown

Strike #1: In April of 1942, Sullivan was hiding out from a thunderstorm in a fire lookout tower that had no lightning rod. It was hit seven or eight times, and, according to Sullivan, “fire was jumping all over the place.” He ran outside and received his first and most severe lightning hit, which burned a half-inch strip all along his right leg, and left a hole in his shoe.

#2: In an unusual case, lightning first struck some nearby trees and then was deflected into the open window of the truck Sullivan was driving. The strike knocked him unconscious and burned off most of his hair. The truck continued on, uncontrolled, until it stopped near the edge of a cliff.

#3: Sullivan was struck on the left shoulder by lightning that first hit a nearby power transformer. His shoulder was seared.

upper atmosphere lightning and electrical discharge phenomenaPhoto: Abestrobi

#4: The fourth strike occurred in 1972.  Sullivan was working inside a ranger station when lightning set fire to his hair. Although he was not initially a fearful or superstitious man, he acquired a fear of death after the fourth strike. Whenever caught in a storm, he would pull over if he was driving and lie down on the front seat until the storm had passed, and he also began to carry a can of water with him everywhere he went.

#5: In 1973, while on patrol as a ranger, a storm cloud “chased” him until he was struck by lightning again. This set his hair on fire—again—moved down his arm and leg and knocked off his shoe. Still conscious, Sullivan crawled to the can of water that he always kept in his truck, and poured it over his head.

#6: The sixth bolt struck and injured Sullivan’s ankle after he tried to run away from a storm cloud.

#7: In June of 1977, Sullivan was fishing in a pond when he was struck for the seventh and final time. The lighting burned his head, chest and stomach. Then, Sullivan reported, a bear appeared and tried to steal trout from his fishing line. He managed to fight off the bear with a tree branch, and claimed that it was the twenty-second time that he had hit a bear with a branch.

The odds of being struck by lightning over a lifetime of eighty years have been roughly estimated as 1 in 3000. If the lightning strikes were all independent events, the probability of being hit seven times would be 1 in 3000 to the 7th power. Sullivan’s odds, of course, were increased by his working outdoors, and the fact that Virginia, where he lived, averages 35 to 45 thunderstorm days per year.

NASA--Annual flash rate of lightningPhoto: NASA

All seven of these strikes were documented both by the Superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, and by doctors who treated Sullivan—hence, his Guinness Book of World Records status.

Sullivan finally died at the age of seventy-one from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the stomach. It was reported that he was suffering from unrequited love.