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I have just finished reading a book about the diseases that might have killed famous people in history. The book is written by a medical doctor John J. Ross who like a detective examines the causes or at least speculates on what killed so and so. We start with William Shakespeare and go on to William Butler Yeats, examining also the medical files of Jack London, Johathan Swift, James Joyce, Herman Melville, John Milton, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Brontes.

In many a case, because the famous person died at a time when medical knowledge was primitive or absent, Dr Ross has to speculate based on personal journals, diaries, letters or writings in poems, books or plays where the topic of one disease in particular comes back constantly. In the case of Shakespeare who died many centuries ago, Ross speculates what it could have been, he proposes that it could have been a STD or more precisely Syphilis which was very common in his time and untreatable. Or the treatment was barbaric at best. Many doctors prescribed poisonous compounds which had horrible side effects but could for a brief period give the impression of curing the patient. In other cases it was madness or dementia which was not understood at the time and friends could only despair at your condition. Others suffered from soaring fevers and all manner of ailments which would come and go. Brucellosis would be treated with arsenic injections and horse serum, strangely these diseases/treatments and near death experiences would sometimes give the author as in the case of Yeats new insight and stimulate their creativity.

Many people also used drugs, Opium was common, in an era where no Laws existed against their use, Queen Victoria was an occasional user. Many also drank to excess and given poor sanitary conditions and lack of understanding of bacterial infections and many other health conditions people suffered but manage to live on, if they had strong constitutions, until one day by an accumulation of symptoms and or old age simply died.

It makes for good reading and made me wonder why nowadays with all the modern medical treatments and advancement in knowledge do we have so many people in poor health, physical or mental or in the case of Western countries living with First World medical conditions real or imagined.

At any rate this book shows you how humanity managed through the ages despite it all. It seems that diseases in general are not efficient in killing humans that easily.


Death and the Wood Cutter by J.F.Millet, C.1885