Medical Mysteries in Literature

Medicine has always fascinated me.

In my 30 years as a care-management expert, I’ve seen how good healthcare choices (or bad ones) can determine the quality of our lives. Even when I’m reading for pleasure, I’m thinking about the health of the authors and characters of my favorite books. I find that the medical mysteries surrounding famous writers can often be as interesting as their best books.

Here's a sneak peek at my latest story, Death is No Parenthesis: 3 Medical Mysteries in Literature, about a few real-life cases that may intrigue you!


Edgar Allen Poe

At times, Poe’s chilling tales of murder (The Tell-tale Heart), mourning (“The Raven”), and loss (“Annabel Lee”) seem sprung from his personal life. Haunted by poverty, the loss of both his parents by the time he was three, and the death of his beloved 24-year-old wife Virginia, Poe drowned his sorrows in alcohol, which certainly hastened his death at age 40. But the bizarre circumstances of his last days call for a more careful read. Was it alcohol poisoning? Rabies? A broken heart?

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte (Jane Eyre) and her sisters Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) are almost as well-known for their deaths as for their novels. Emily and Anne died within quick succession of each other, and none of the sisters lived past age 38. Yet speculation abounds as to how they died. The cause of her death isn't as simple as you might think.


The beloved author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice enjoyed vibrant health until the age of 40, when she began to suffer the unexplained symptoms — joint aches, vomiting, fever, face discoloration — that preceded her death in 1817 at 41. Rumors (it was cancer, arsenic, morning sickness!) still abound as to the cause. 

Have a hunch about how these famous authors really died? Join the debate brewing right now on Facebook

This story was originally published on Signature Reads.