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Mozart's 140 Causes of Death

Posted by Josh Rothman  December 14, 2010 05:19 PM

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What killed Mozart? Writing in the British Medical Journal, Lucien Karhausen reviews the literature and finds that more than 140 different causes of death have been proposed since the composer died of an unknown illness in 1791 at the age of 35. Since Mozart died only once, Karhausen writes, "most if not all" of those explanations must be false.

The sheer variety of explanations is incredible. Some authors believe Mozart was murdered, others that he died of natural causes (or, more generally, of a "weak constitution"); some explanations point to a chronic illness, others on an acute medical crisis. And then there are the psychopathological explanations: according to Karhausen's review, there have been "27 psychiatrics disorders attributed to Mozart."

Reviewing all of these explanations, Karhausen notices a general trend: the explanations get more and more outlandish as time goes on. "The most likely diagnoses - such as influenza, typhoid fever, and typhus - were proposed first, and only rare and irrelevant conditions such as Goodpasture’s syndrome, Wegener’s granulomatosis, Still’s disease, or Henoch-Schönlein syndrome were left for those who came later." It's only the proliferation of new diagnoses that keeps the historical diagnoses coming.

Why the obsession with diagnosing Mozart? To Karhausen, it all smacks of jealousy and envy. He invokes Diderot's story Rameau's Nephew, in which a callow, envious, ambitious and intelligent young man explains his feelings about geniuses this way:

I never heard any single one of them praised without it making me secretly furious. I am full of envy. When I hear some degrading feature about their private life, I listen with pleasure. This brings me closer to them. It makes me bear my mediocrity more easily.

To Karhausen, the frenzy of historical diagnoses is itself a symptom of "some obscure need to cut great artists down to size." Maybe so, or maybe it's just fun to speculate - to elevate something merely unknown into something mysterious.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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