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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What really killed Jane Austen?

Was it the vapours? Acute Darcyitis? A bilious attack?

What really killed Jane Austen?

In honour of PBS's Masterpiece Theatre Complete Jane Austen series, here's a little survey for all you medical detectives out there on what killed the beloved author of Pride and Prejudice et al at just 41 years of age.

Addison's disease, first diagnosed by Sir Zachary Cope in the British Medical Journal in 1964, is Jane Austen's most commonly accepted cause of death. Leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease, non Hodgkin’s lymphoma, tuberculosis and systemic vasculitis, among others, have also been cited as possibilities. Hodgkin's disease is argued for in a recent survey of Austen's medical history, published in the journal Medical Humanities in 2005 by English lit prof Annette Upfal of the University of Queensland.

There's precious little information for medical historians to go on, since the bulk of Jane Austen's correspondence was famously burned by her family. Here's what we know:

Fatal illness: In her last illness, thought to begin around a year before her death, Jane Austen exhibited the following symptoms: gastro-intestinal irritation (which she characterized as "bile" or "bilious attacks"), fever, weakness, languor, knee/leg pain (which she calls "rheumatism" in her letters), possible pruritis (skin itch), insomnia, pallor, syncope, skin discoloration ("black and white and every wrong colour" she wrote to her niece).

Medical history: Jane Austen was born four weeks post-date; she suffered "putrid fever" (typhus) as a child; as a young woman she had a bout of whooping cough accompanied by otitis externa.

Chronic conditions: Ms Austen also suffered throughout her life from chronic conjunctivitis (pink eye) as well as severe trigeminal neuralgia (in her case, pain in the cheek and upper jaw).

So, medical detectives, based on her symptoms and medical history, what do you think Jane Austen died from?


Portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen

Check out our website: www.nationalreviewofmedicine.com

2 comments:

  1. I think it's quite obvious what Jane Austen died from. She had the classic symptoms of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, caused by undiagnosed coeliac disease. All her symptoms point to this. The cancer probably spread to her kidneys and therefore the Addisons-like symptoms towards the end. All Jane Austen had to do was stop eating grain of any kind. Just think, if this knowledge had been available at the time......................

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