Shakespearean tragedy: What ailed the Bard of Avon?

Looking for a good mystery? Look no further than the novels and poems of your favorite classical author or poet. As an undergraduate English major, Dr. John J. Ross, a hospitalist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), studied the works of William Shakespeare, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, and others. Now, he has combined his knowledge of literature and medicine to write a book about the medical mysteries surrounding the lives and deaths of famous authors. His book, Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough: Medical Lives of Famous Writers, was published in November 2012.

The book’s inspiration came twelve years ago while Dr. Ross was working at another Boston-area hospital during a syphilis outbreak. Thanks to the development of effective treatments, syphilis has become relatively rare in the U.S. However, its rarity meant that the diagnosis was overlooked in several patients. After the outbreak, Dr. Ross prepared a presentation on syphilis to update his colleagues.  To make things interesting, he included some quotes from Shakespeare, who often referred to the disease in his plays.

Intrigued by Shakespeare’s frequent references to syphilis, Dr. Ross decided to research Shakespeare’s health history while also re-reading his plays. “We don’t know much about Shakespeare’s health; the only thing we know medically about him is that his handwriting deteriorated to an impressive degree over the course of his life, especially for someone who died in his 50s,” notes Dr. Ross.

Putting the pieces together, Dr. Ross wrote a paper suggesting that Shakespeare, suffering from syphilis, may have been treated with mercury. This treatment may have been the cause of the hand tremors which occurred later in Shakespeare’s life. The paper was published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases medical journal. The article, in turn, led to a segment on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, convincing Dr. Ross that people would be interested in a book about writers and their diseases.

Following the format of Dr. Ross’ original work on Shakespeare, each chapter in the book combines a short biography with a medical mystery. Some examples of other authors and illnesses featured include Herman Melville, who suffered attacks of eye and back pain; John Milton, whose vision deteriorated over the course of his life, eventually leaving him blind; and the Brontë sisters, who died from tuberculosis.

“If you look at biographical patterns in writers, they experience childhood losses very commonly. Many of these writers are people who came from fairly comfortable backgrounds and were affected by some kind of tragedy or difficult event. Many writers had fathers that went bankrupt. Others lost one or both parents. These stressors probably do something to develop their imaginations, so they can retreat into a world of fantasy or recreate a better world in their minds,” observes Dr. Ross.

Read our recent post, Passion for Poetry and Medicine, to learn about another BWH author, Dr. Kenneth Lee, a pathologist who recently published a book of poems.

– Michelle C, Jamie R

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