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.

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