Solving the Mystery of the Deaths of Historical Figures

by MSO
Stonewall Jackson, Christopher Columbus, Florence Nightingale, King Herod, Charles Darwin, Edgar Allan Poe and Vladimir Lenin all died without a definite cause of death. The University of Maryland provides a cause of death.

The University of Maryland School of Medicine hosts Historical Clinicopathological Conferences each year to find out the cause of death of famous people in history.

Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was a Confederate General during the American Civil War. He died, at the age of 39, on May 10, 1863 after being shot in the arm and hand with three bullets fired by one of his soldiers. He was a healthy man, didn’t smoke or drink, never had any serious problems with his health and was recovering nicely from his wounds. So why did he die?

Many medical facilities usually hold Clinicopathological Conferences or CPCs where the history of a patient’s illness is presented and discussed by a variety of medical experts. CPCs can be used as to diagnose an unusual illness, to find alternate treatment options and they are used as a teaching tool for medical students. These CPCs are usually held by medical colleges throughout the year.

The University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore VA Medical Center and Medical Alumni Association have been hosting rather unusual CPCs since 1995 and have held annual conferences which are called “The Historical CPC”. Though the medical center holds conferences every week to discuss modern medical cases, once a year experts in a variety of medical fields along with historians attempt to figure out how historical figures, whose cause of death is in question or unknown, have died. With the help of journals, books, newspapers, historical accounts and more a history of the person is researched from what they ate and drank to what he or she was engaged in doing prior to death. Every little fact, however innocuous it may seem, can be a factor in deciding the outcome.

In past years the conference has found that Vladimir Lenin, who was said to have died of a stroke at age 52, probably died due to accelerated cerebral atherosclerosis (a build up of plaque in the brain). Charles Darwin was diagnosed as having cyclic vomiting syndrome instead of angina which was recorded as the original cause of his death in 1882. Christopher Columbus died of HLA-B27-related reactive arthritis not gout as was believed. Florence Nightingale whose death at age 90 was deemed from old age actually died of bipolar disorder I, with psychotic features. King Herod whom history says died of a mysterious disease actually died of uremia (kidney failure) complicated by Fournier gangrene. Edgar Allen Poe whose cause of death was unknown is believed to have died from either rabies or delirium tremens.

This year’s conference focussed on the death of General Jackson. Historians were long divided on the reason he died. Jackson’s own doctor said he died from pneumonia while others believed it was an infection. Dr. Joseph DuBose, a professor of surgery at the University of Maryland headed up this year’s conference. They delved into his past – looking at how his parents and siblings died, childhood illnesses, what type of meals he ate and at all the medical evidence surrounding his death before concluding that Stonewall Jackson died of pneumonia.

You can read all the cases the Historical CPC has reviewed on their website here. Each one is a fascinating look into the past with medical and historical facts presented in easy to understand language, mini biographies of the experts who examined the case are included along with reasons for their diagnosis of the cause of death.

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