Experts Debate Cause of Jane Austen's Death

Posted on November 30, 2009

Years after her death, scholars and medical experts are still debating what caused the death of Jane Austen. The accepted view is that she died at 41 of Addison's disease. But that diagnosis is being reviewed and today medical experts think she actually died of tuberculosis that she contracted from cattle. Katherine White writes in the British Medical Journal's Medical Humanities magazine about the alternative theories about Austen's death.

White writes: "In 1964, [the surgeon Sir] Zachary Cope proposed that tubercular Addison's disease could explain her two-year deterioration into bed-ridden exhaustion, her unusual colouring, bilious attacks, rheumatic pains and the absence of more specific indicators of disease."

By contrast, one of Austen's most recent biographers, Claire Tomalin, suggested in 1997 that lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system) would be a better fit for the novelist's reported symptoms.

Examining her symptoms, as described in the novelist's letters, White agrees that Cope's diagnosis of Addison's disease could be correct, but notes: "Most patients with the disease experience mental confusion, generalised pain, weight loss and loss of appetite. None of these symptoms appears in Miss Austen's letters." Less than two months before her death, Austen wrote: "My head was always clear, and I had scarcely any pain." She even dictated 24 lines of comic verse from her sickbed to her sister in her last days.

Contemporary reports of Austen's skin discolouration, White adds, may have referred to the dark circles under her eyes. "Therefore, we can conclude that it is most likely she did not die from Addison's," she writes.

"While lymphoma would be one possible cause of the exhaustion, recurrent fever, bilious attacks and rheumatic pains described by Austen, disseminated tuberculosis affecting the joints and liver -- probably of bovine origin -- would offer a simpler explanation for her symptoms.

In any event, it seems a terrible way to go. Without DNA evidence it will be impossible to finally determine how Jane Austen died, but the new analysis is quite interesting.

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