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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Austenian medical mystery

Jane Austen’s death is tragic, because she died at only forty-one, at the height of her artistic powers. It’s also mysterious – the year-long illness that preceded her death was essentially undiagnosed in her time, and that diagnosis is the subject of rampant speculation in ours.

Since the 1960s, conventional wisdom has held that Austen probably died of Addison’s disease, a rare disorder of the adrenal glands. But more recently, alternate theories have gained currency: lymphoma, bovine tuberculosis, a recurrence of typhus, or arsenic poisoning (accidental or homicidal).

Now a retired eye surgeon in Britain has co-authored a paper offering yet another diagnosis: lupus, a multi-system autoimmune syndrome that overwhelmingly affects young-to-middle-aged women. “Jane had the same disease that is currently recognized, and she even conforms to the international criteria as recognized today,” Michael D. Sanders told the Chawton House blog last month.

According to Sanders and his co-author, fellow physician Elizabeth M. Graham, the symptoms that Austen describes in her letters – especially rheumatic pains, an intermittent facial rash, and a feverish debility that came and went – correlate far more closely with lupus than with any of the other hypothesized illnesses. (The paper, published in a peer-reviewed online journal devoted to lupus, can be accessed here, for a fee or via an institutional account, but Chawton House has graciously uploaded a free version as well.)

As Sanders points out, even today lupus is a serious illness; there’s no guarantee that Austen’s doctors would have been able to extend her life even if they had known what they were dealing with.

With no medical expertise of my own, I’m in no position to judge the validity of the paper’s conclusions, and since we can’t summon Austen back from the grave for lab tests and exams, we’ll never know her diagnosis for certain. Still, the latest hypothesis is a fascinating stab at solving this sad puzzle.

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