Digging Up Corpses to Settle Questons About Famous Dead People

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Scientists love to dig up old bones and medical records to reassess the health of historical figures. At the University of Maryland School of Medicine's annual Clinicopathological Conference, docs have proposed diagnoses for everyone from Alexander the Great (typhoid fever complicated by Guillain-Barre syndrome) to Beethoven (syphilis), Christopher Columbus (severe arthritis caused by an infection) and Florence Nightingale (bipolar and posttraumatic stress disorders).

There isn't always a consensus. At the first conference, in 1995, a researcher concluded that Edgar Allan Poe had succumbed to rabies. But Dr. Philip Mackowiak, the program's director, says that Poe's doctor embellished his medical records. Mackowiak's diagnosis: alcohol withdrawal. Then there's Napoleon. His 1821 autopsy said stomach cancer. In 1961, a Swedish dentist suggested death by arsenic poisoning. A 2004 study blamed overenthusiastic doctors (one problem: too many enemas). Then, just this spring, Swiss researchers reported that they'd studied 12 pairs of the emperor's trousers (worn before and during exile) and calculated a pattern of weight change that supported the initial autopsy: Napoleon's "final defeat," they wrote, was likely caused by gastric cancer.

Genomic advances could help solve other cases. Did Abraham Lincoln have Marfan syndrome, characterized by unusually long limbs? His DNA, preserved in 140-year-old bone and hair, could one day provide the evidence, says Dr. Philip Reilly, head of Interleukin Genetics. Until then, may he rest in peace.


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