When Scientists Speculate on the Cause of Death of Famous People

Roundup: Talking About History

Stephen Pincock, in the London Financial Times (Nov. 20, 2004):

The idea that Napoleon died after being given one too many enemas is a mental image too far for me. But for Dr Steven Karch, an American forensic pathologist, coming up earlier this year with a new theory on the strange death of the emperor represented his chance to take a turn playing a kind of scientific parlour game.

The caper involves assigning causes of death to historical figures on the basis of sometimes very skimpy evidence, and Karch's suggestion that Bonaparte died as a result of a medical misadventure, as he wrote in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, was a classic contribution.

Most historians think Napoleon died of stomach cancer, which his personal physician recorded in an autopsy report. But Karch added a twist: suggesting that the deadly event was the fault of his doctors. In trying to treat the emperor's intestinal pain, they treated him with a whopping daily enema and induced vomiting with a chemical called antimony potassium tartrate. Also, the day before he died, he was given a huge dose of mercurous chloride as a purgative. The combined result was potassium depletion and a condition known as torsades de pointes, where irregular heartbeats disrupt blood flow to the brain.

It is easy to find scientists and medics who are willing to dispute this post-mortem diagnosis, which is not really very surprising, given that it was made without access to any of the deceased's bodily remains.

And as Karch was no doubt well aware, his theory is only the most recent episode in an ongoing controversy about Napoleon's death. For example, some French conspiracy theorists are convinced that he was poisoned.

Another supposed conspiracy was revealed back in June, when Israeli researchers announced that Lenin may have had a crippling case of neurosyphilis when he died, but that it was never revealed to the world because his physicians were sworn to secrecy.

In the European Journal of Neurology, doctors Witztum, Finkelstein and Lerner reported that the Russian revolutionary had short episodes of unconsciousness in his later years, along with seizures and sleeplessness - all symptoms that could be caused when the sexually transmitted disease reaches the brain. Plus, in 1922 he was also treated with Salvarsan, an arsenic-based drug used for syphilis.

Circumstantial evidence is the defining characteristic of the celebrity death game. In the past few years I've read suggestions that Mozart was killed by under-cooked pork chops or, alternatively, rheumatic fever; that Beethoven's searing abdominal pains were caused by lead poisoning; and that Edgar Allen Poe died from alcoholism, carbon monoxide poisoning or rabies.

Meanwhile, Herod the Great - who died in 4BC - was apparently slain by chronic kidney disease, and Alexander (also the Great) was finally defeated in 323BC by typhoid fever, complicated by bowel perforation and ascending paralysis, no less.

What makes this sort of guesswork so appealing to a certain breed of scientists is that it can never be tested. As Home Office pathologist Dr Nat Cary says, "You can say what you like really because no one can say that you're wrong."...

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