Monday, August 30, 2010
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.