On this day in 1977, US park ranger Roy Cleveland Sullivan was struck by lightning for a record seventh time. Also known as the “Human Lightning Rod,” Sullivan is recognised by the Guinness World Records as the person struck by lightning more recorded times than any other human being.
Sullivan was born in Greene County, Virginia, on 7 February 1912. He began working as a ranger in Shenandoah National Park in 1936. Being hit by lightning is a rare, though not impossible event. Over the course of an 80-year life span, the odds of being hit by lightning are 1 in 3,000. The probability of being struck seven different times is 1 in 3,000 to the 7th power. Over his 36-year career, Sullivan was struck by lightning seven times, surviving each jolt—though not escaping completely unscathed.
Strike one occurred in April 1942. Sullivan was hiding out from a thunderstorm in a lookout tower with no lightning rod. It was hit multiple times, causing currents to jump through the cavity. Sullivan ran outside, receiving his first documented hit, which burned a half-inch strip along his right leg and left a hole in his shoe.
The second bolt struck as Sullivan was driving his truck, striking him unconscious and burning off most of his hair. In his third strike, Sullivan was hit on his left shoulder by lightning that first hit a nearby power transformer. The bolt seared his shoulder. The fourth strike occurred in 1972 when Sullivan was working inside a ranger station and lightning struck, setting fire to his hair. At this point, Sullivan became fearful of death and took precautions during lightning strikes. Strike five occurred in 1973 when Sullivan was on patrol as a ranger. A storm cloud “chased” him until he was struck—again, setting his hair on fire—again. The current then moved down his arm and leg and knocked off his shoe. Still conscious, Sullivan crawled to a can of water he always kept in his truck, then poured it over his head. The sixth bolt struck Sullivan’s ankle as he tried to escape a storm cloud. Finally, on 25 June 1977, a seventh and final bolt struck Sullivan as he was fishing in a pond. The lightning burned his head, chest, and stomach. Again, Sullivan survived this strike.
When Sullivan finally died in 1983 at the age of 71, it was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the stomach, over an unrequited love, not a lightning strike, that finally killed him.