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New Light on Jane Austen's Final Chapter

Novelist's symptoms point to death from TB, not Addison's, researcher says

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 2 (HealthDay News) -- The woman behind Pride and Prejudice and Emma may have died of tuberculosis rather than Addison's disease, as has long been believed, says one British scholar.

Since Jane Austen's death in 1817 at the age of 41, many historians and other experts have believed the cause was Addison's disease, which affects the adrenal glands and creates problems with blood pressure and heart function. The disease was always fatal until effective treatment became available in the 1950s.

But Katherine White, a member of the Addison's Disease Self-Help Group, analyzed Austen's letters in the two years before she died and concluded that the symptoms described by the writer suggest Addison's wasn't the culprit.

Austen said she experienced exhaustion, rheumatic pains, unusual skin discoloration and bilious attacks -- all of which could be symptoms of Addison's disease. However, she makes no mention of other symptoms -- generalized pain, weight loss, mental confusion and loss of appetite -- experienced by most people with the disease.

White noted that disseminated tuberculosis, affecting the joints and liver, "would have been more common in Jane Austen's time and would offer a simpler explanation for her symptoms."

Some medical historians have suggested that Austen could have acquired disseminated tuberculosis infection from cows or by drinking unpasteurized milk.

In 1964, physician and surgeon Zachary Cope suggested that Austen may have died from tubercular Addison's disease.

"...It is likely that Cope's hypothesis of infective tuberculosis as the source of her illness was at least partially correct, after all," White wrote.

The article was published online Nov. 30 in the journal Medical Humanities.

More information

The American Lung Association has more about tuberculosis .

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: BMJ specialist journals, news release, Nov. 30, 2009

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