Monday, August 30, 2010

Medicine Meets Music History: What Killed Mozart?

On November 20th 1791 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart became bed bound. He began to have swelling in his hands and feet. He became listless and began to have fever and vomiting. On December 4th, a group of friends came to perform parts of the Requiem for him. His condition worsened through the night. On December 5th Mozart died at age 35. (Sounds like an episode of House.) He was officially diagnosed by his physician as having had miliary fever (which is apparently a catch all diagnosis for a fever with a rash). His body was buried in a common grave. Soon after his death the speculation as to the exact cause began. A recent New York Times article delves into the medical mystery surrounding the death of Mozart. (The painting is “Mozart 1756-91 Sings His Requiem,” painted in 1882 by Thomas W. Shields.)

The New York Times article discusses an article published in Medical Problems of Performing Artists. They summarized the known theories and came up with 118 different ones. Mozart himself once thought he had been poisoned, so that has been one theory. Others include renal failure from various causes, bacterial endocarditis, and congestive heart failure. Medical malpractice even enters the picture. While Mozart was on his death bed, his physician was sent for at the theatre. He apparently responded that he would be there after the show. (The painting to the left is Hermann Kaulbach's 1872 oil painting "Mozart's last days".)

If you're hungry for more information on this medical mystery, you'll be pleased. A quick Google search revealed a Wikipedia page, an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, and a Medscape article to name a few. I had no idea there was so much interest in this topic.

To me the bigger question is not what actually killed Mozart, but why so many people care so much. A lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to figure this out. One theory given by the article is that a large proportion of doctors play musical instruments. (Really? They don't cite any studies on this, just mention one doctor who does. Very scientific.) From the article: "The very idea that remarkable individuals who gave life so much beauty could be brought down by ordinary physical ailments, particularly diseases that are now easily treatable, is inherently fascinating. That perception makes people of genius seem closer to us."

I don't really agree that doctors are interested because they play musical instruments and want to feel closer to genius. I think it is more likely that many doctors and others of the medical community like a good mystery. (I met a doctor once who did years of extensive research on the assassination of JFK.) And this is a good medical mystery with actually quite a few first hand accounts that one can sink ones teeth into. We can guess all we want, but given the age of the mystery and the fact that there is no available body, it seems there will never be an answer. Maybe that's really why the medical community enjoys researching this. If we can never solve the mystery for sure, then you can't be wrong.

2 Responses to “Medicine Meets Music History: What Killed Mozart?”

Lyle Fettig, MD said...
December 11, 2010 at 11:34 AM

Here's yet another article on the topic of Mozart's death.

The question of why so many are so fascinated with Mozart's death is an interesting one. The idea that "so many physicians play musical instruments" as a reason seems too simplistic to me as well. I like your theory that we all just like a good mystery. To heighten interest more, I think psychologically, Mozart is one of those figures that is immortal....his music is an extension of his mind/body and has lived on through the ages with no sign (so far) that it will ever "die." There has to be something there psychologically which propels people to be more fascinated with the cause of his physical death because of this immortality. He's unlike most of us (who will be largely forgotten after a couple of generations) but how was he like us?

Christian Sinclair, MD said...
December 11, 2010 at 11:44 AM

I saw that BMJ article and forgot Amber had written this. Thanks for linking the two.

I agree with the theory of 'a good mystery' especially about historical figures. And i think there is an inertia at play here too. Once one person starts inquiring about the 'real' cause of death, then other people start asking more questions and coming up with their own conclusions.

Death certificates were only starting to be universally applied in the late 18th century.