Some modern-day physicians, intrigued by what really killed historical figures, are unearthing a second career as detectives.
Since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Oliver Cromwell died prior to the advent of blood tests and autopsies, a group of physicians have begun piecing together the causes of their deaths, according to the Los Angeles Times. The process involves not only diagnostic skill, but also research, excavation and a bit of guesswork.
Dr. Jan Hirschmann, who works at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle, began trying to solve Mozart's death almost 20 years ago. A colleague invited him to lecture on the 1791 death of the Austrian composer. Knowing nothing about the case, Hirschmann pored through every biography.
Many hypotheses exist about Mozart's death. But none of the diagnoses made sense, as Mozart was said to have been in perfect health before being stricken by fever and a rash. His symptoms and notes from physicians of the time led Hirschmann to suspect an outbreak.
Trichinosis, a parasitic disease caused by eating undercooked pork, was a possibility, but he didn't know what Mozart had eaten. That's when Hirschmann found a letter Mozart had been writing to his wife when he was interrupted by a servant delivering supper. In the letter, dated Oct. 7, 1791, Mozart mentioned smelling pork cutlets. He fell ill 44 days later, about the time it takes for trichinosis symptoms to appear. “I call it the smoking—or not-so-smoking—pork chop,” Hirschmann told the Times.
Another physician, Dr. Sanjay Saint, determined that English statesman Oliver Cromwell in 1658 died of malaria—regularly found in the British Isles at that time—combined with a salmonella infection that gave him typhoid. And Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak, a University of Maryland physician and epidemiologist, concluded that ancient Greek leader Pericles was a victim of typhus and that writer Edgar Allan Poe died of rabies.