Magazine article Newsweek

Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, Joan of Arc: Famous Deaths Raise Questions for Scientists; Revisiting History Yields Haunting Insights about What Might Have Been

Magazine article Newsweek

Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, Joan of Arc: Famous Deaths Raise Questions for Scientists; Revisiting History Yields Haunting Insights about What Might Have Been

Article excerpt

Byline: Jessica Wapner

For the past 25 years, Philip Mackowiak, a professor (now emeritus) at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in Baltimore, has hosted a conference about solving the mysterious deaths of historical figures. The gatherings have generated some very intriguing diagnoses for people like Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln and this year's selection, Saladin, the first sultan of Egypt. Newsweek spoke to Mackowiak about his obsession with cold cases, which began with the writer Edgar Allan Poe.

What about Poe's death intrigued you?

In 1849, Poe was found in a gutter in Baltimore and died soon after. The presenter in our first conference thought his symptoms were from rabies. Based on the writer's life and medical history, it seemed more likely to me that he died from delirium tremens, a condition stemming from alcohol withdrawal.

Don't we know the cause of death for Abraham Lincoln and Joan of Arc?

Our question surrounding Joan of Arc's death was slightly different. We set up a court to rule on whether she should have been acquitted based on a plea of insanity. Either she was delusional, or she had conversations with representatives of God. Our jury chose to believe the former. Incidentally, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake not because of her professed conversations but because she wore men's clothing.

For Abraham Lincoln, we wanted to know whether he would have survived if he'd had access to modern trauma care. The head of a shock trauma unit concluded that Lincoln may have survived and continued his presidency. At the time, I thought that conclusion was ridiculous--a bullet went through the left side of his head, destroying everything in its path. But after suffering the same wound, Gabrielle Giffords recovered.

What about Beethoven?

Beethoven was ill most of his life. …

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