The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 7, 2001

Famous deaths that werenít what you thought
Suraj Saraf

HISTORY maintains that Alexander the Great died because of a severe fever in 323 B.C. while he was returning from India.

But modern researchers differ. Although Alexander defeated Porus by stealthily crossing the Jehlum, yet his armies faced such stiff resistance in Indian territory and they became so tired because of the long march from their homeland Macedonia (Greece) that they refused to accompany Alexander on his onward march.

Alexander, however, dreamt of conquering the world and planned to cross the Ganga. Yet the determined refusal by his soldiers forced him to return. But he was so upset at not being able to do what he wanted, that he developed serious pancreatitis, much before he could reach Greece. Modern researchers have concluded that this led to his death.

According to Dr Propedeutic of Greece, Alexanderís pancreatitis resulted from heavy alcohol consumption and very rich meals. He said he had reached his findings after carefully reconstructing the last two weeks of Alexanderís life.

Elaborating, Dr Propedeutic said that Alexander suffered from depression following a mutiny in his army that prevented him from advancing to the Ganga after he had vanquished Porus in 327.


Napoleon was poisoned

Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte, who at a time occupied much of Europe and was known to history as a great army commander, was ultimately defeated and exiled to the island of St Helena in Atlantic off the coast of Southern Africa. He died there six years later on May 5, 1821, at the age of 51. The death was attributed to stomach cancer.

For the past several years doubts have been cast about what led to his end. The Cape Town Museum had a lock of the hair of the French emperor that had been donated to it by a Dutch Minister who practised at St Helena.

Napoleonís hair has been scientifically examined by experts at the Federal Bureau of America Swedish scientists and French forensic authorities and all have concluded that Napoleon did not die of cancer but from slow arsenic poisoning. His hair was found to contain ten times the normal level of arsenic.

It is believed that arsenic doses were administered to him intermittently by his close aide, Count Charles de Montholon, who, was acting on the orders of the French royalists who were afraid that Napoleon might return to lead another revolution.

Queen who changed Russian history

The Russian Tsar Ivan, was so shaken by the mysterious death of his Queen Anastasia in 1561, that from being a reformist he became so cruel that he earned the sobriquet of "Ivan the Terrible". So much so that he killed his own favourite son in an argument.

Anastasiaís sarcophagus was opened when the Kremlin Cathedral was being dug in 1996. Under the new political regime in Russia archeologists got a unique opportunity to excavate tombs.

"We canít rule out poisoning of Anastasia," was the verdict of a chemical expert Natalya Voronova who examined Anatasiaís body. She said she found large doses of mercury in the queenís hair. Hair preserves poison longer than any other part of the body and indicates how much the body has absorbed.

Anastasia was the beautiful daughter of a wealthy family who Ivan had married out of love. His courtiers, however, did not think her worthy of the Tsar and so they conspired to kill her.

Musical instrument killed Beethoven?

A glass instrument that produced hypnotic music has been recently ascertained to have been cause of death of Beethoven, a renowned music composer who was born in Bonn in 1770 and died in 1827. He was regarded as the last of the classic and the first of the romantic composers.

The glass harmonica invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761 was played by Ludwig Van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart when Franklin visited France during the American Revolution.

This glass instrument consisted of blown crystal bowls in different sizes, arranged along a spindle that rotated when the player placed moistened fingers on them.

Earlier, lead glass stemware was sometimes used instead of crystal and leaded paint was applied to some of the bowls to produce different notes. Recent studies of Beethovenís hair carried out in California, showed that the concentration of lead in his body was 100 times higher than normal.

Researchers said it was virtually certain Beethoven had lead poisoning or plumbism, which could have been the cause of some his of illnesses and his strange behaviour.

It may be mentioned here that Beethoven suffered from a number of serious ailments viz cirrhosis of liver, chronic kidney stones and constant intestinal problems. According to a doctor in Vienna, the composer had a continual bout of diarrhoea. There were no signs that he used morphine to ease the pain. It seemed he relied on large quantities of wine.

The hair was cut from his head by a young student after Beethovenís death in 1827 and art auctioneers, Sothebyís, disposed it of for 7300 dollars.

Lincoln didnít have long to live anyway

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

Although it is well-known that Lincoln was killed by an assassinís bullet, yet there has been a debate about a medical condition that Lincoln was said to have, that would have killed him if Wilkes Booth's bullets had not. To end the controversy scientists wanted to carry out a DNA test on the blood which splattered on his cloak when he was shot.

However, the tests were stopped because some scientists and others felt that the cloak could be damaged during investigative process. The cloak had great value as a historical artefact.

It may be pointed out that Lincoln suffered from Marfanís syndrome, a genetic disease that damages the elastic tissue holding the body together, causing lanky limbs and elongated fingers. This may have accounted for Lincolnís gangly stature.

This disease also causes blood clots. Anyone at 56 years of age, Lincolnís age when he was shot dead, would not have expected to live longer with Marfanís syndrome as it is considered fatal. So if Lincoln was near the end of his life anyway, the assassin Booth may not have changed history to the extent some think he did.

Pork cutlets caused Mozartís death

About three months back, a bizarre cause of death of another great European composer of the 18th century, Mozart, was announced by a medical centre in Seattle that contradicted the version given at the time of his death in Vienna in 1791, at the age of 35.

No, it was not fever, kidney stones, heart disease, pneumonia or even poisoning, what may have really killed Mozart were pork cutlets. The latest theory about his untimely death suggests the culprit was likely trichinosis.

That disease is caused by eating undercooked pork infested by worms. It could explain all of Mozartís symptoms like fever, rash, pain in the limbs and swelling, says Dr Jan V Hirschmann of Puget Sound Veterans Affairs Medical Centre in Seattle (USA).

Hirschmann offers as evidence an innocuous letter Mozart wrote to his wife 44 days before his illness. "What do I smell? Pork cutlets. What a delicious taste. I eat to your health." The incubation period of trichinosis is 50 days.

Hirschmannís report is based on an examination of medical literature, historical documents and Mozart biographies.

Mozart died 15 days after he became ill. His doctors offered only a vague cause of his death i.e severe fever. His wife Constanze had reportedly said that Mozart thought he was being poisoned.

Did Shakespeare have cancer?

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

The death of William Shakespeare, too, has attracted its share of controversy. Modern researchers have tried to pinpoint the cause of his death at the age of 52 in 1616.

German Prof Hidegard Hammerschmidit Hummel of Mainz University, with the help of German medical experts and detectives, five years back came up with an intriguing theory that he died from a rare form of cancer termed lymphoma of the tear gland.

Swelling in the left eye of the great poet pointed to this cancer. Dr Wolfgang Lerche, a leading German eye surgeon, confirmed that the bulge was a clear indication of Mikuliczís syndrome, cancer of the tear duct which was relatively common in the 17th century and could have contributed to Shakespeareís death.

Of late another interesting revelation about Shakespeare has been made by forensic scientists after the analysis of pipes found in his home at Stratford-on-Avon. These pipes link him to drugs like cocaine and cannabis.

Modern medical and forensic scientists and historical researchers are indeed re-writing histories of famous deaths.