Did Agrippina poison the Roman Emperor Claudius? Was General George Armstrong Custer mentally sound when he ordered the 7th Cavalry to attack at the Little Big Horn River? History is full of medical mysteries. After all, everyone has to die of something. But modern medical practitioners have actually found clues to the progress of diseases that still afflict mankind today by studying ancient sources who recorded the afflictions and demise of peoples of the past.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Beethoven: A Symphony of Illness


A 56-year-old Beethoven sought medical care after suffering chills, fever, respiratory distress, and spitting up blood. He complained of chest pain on the right side. He said he had been in good health until two weeks before when he noted a loss of appetite, diarrhea, weight loss, increased thirst, and a swelling of his feet and abdomen. He admits he had been working in the cold at his brother's country home dressed in only flimsy clothing and returned in an open-air cart.

In addition to suffering from progressive deafness that began in his early twenties, the patient suffered recurrent bouts of depression, social isolation and personal neglect. He also began suffering from abdominal pain that he relieved with alcohol. The patient had survived smallpox as a child as well as typhus or typhoid fever. He subsequently claimed to have intermittent winter attacks of "asthma" since the age of 17. In his late forties he noted the onset of chronic headaches and recurrent joint pains which were thought to be rheumatism or gout. At age 51 he suffered an episode of jaundice that lasted six weeks. He also developed a painful eye affliction that was resolved after nine months of patching and noted that he experienced increasing swelling of the lower extremities accompanied by intermitten bouts of nosebleeds, vomiting blood, and coughing or spitting of blood.

Physical examination revealed a stocky, powerfully built but somewhat emaciated man of swarthy complexion. His face was flushed and prominently pockmarked. His lips were thin and parched, his tongue dry and coated. The skin was hot, flushed , and dry and showed evidence of hair loss.

What was the instrument of the famous composer's death?

Did the Roman Emperor Claudius die of poison mushrooms or marital treachery?


Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus was 64 years old when, following a banquet where he consumed a large quantity of food and wine, he lost consciousness. On regaining consciousness, he complained of severe abdominal pain. However, he vomited and said he then felt somewhat better.

He ate and drank in excess regularly, rarely leaving his dining room until he was "stuffed and soaked". This caused him to gain considerable weight in later years and produced heartburn so severe that it is reported that he contemplated suicide as his only means of relief. Born prematurely after only 7 months of gestation, he suffered from a succession of disorders including milk allergy, malaria, measles, deafness, and colitis. He suffered from weakness in both legs to the extent that he noticeably limped and could not walk more than a short distance without assistance. He had longstanding tics and jerks of his head and hands, as well as a stammer and drooling, which were most pronounced when he was excited. He was also prone to fits of inappropriate laughter.

A physical examination revealed that his temperature was normal butt his abdomen was mildly tender throughout.

An attending physician induced additional vomiting by placing a feather in the back of the patient's throat. Shortly thereafter, the emperor became confused and exhibited signs of unremitting abdominal pain and fecal incontinence. He died 12 hours later.

Was it a case of the "cure" being worse than the disease?


Pericles: What plague killed the father of the Parthenon?


The main medical symptoms described by the Greek historian Thucydides included "heat in the head", redness, and burning in the eyes with fetid breath, sneezing, hoarseness and then coughing. The patients' skins were at first flushed and livid then later exhibited pustules and ulcers.

Thucydides reported that desperate patients racked with thirst and fever plunged into cisterns and wells seeking relief. Of the few survivors, some lost fingers and toes from peripheral gangrene, others suffered blindness, and there were also reports of survivors experiencing a complete loss of memory.

Research indicates the disease originated in Africa then spread to the Persian Empire and ultimately to a beseiged Athens via the port of Piraeus where it attacked a population of almost 400,000 condensed into 4 square miles.

What do the experts say?

Welcome to History's Medical Mysteries

With all the new web design capabilities of blogger, I have decided to move my website about history's medical mysteries to Blogspot. Hopefully, this move will make it easier to share articles I have found about medical investigations into the lives of the past - both the rich and famous as well as the average resident of historical locations around the world.