National Geographic : 2009 Jul
ART: BRYAN CHRISTIE DESIGN SCIENCE Final Exam "Listen carefully to the patients, and they'll tell you the diagnosis," a medical maxim advises. But what if the patient's been dead for a millennium? The rule still applies, says Philip Mackowiak, chief of medicine at the Baltimore V.A. Medical Center. For the past 15 years Mackowiak has supervised the ultimate postmortem: a conference that challenges participants to deduce the cause of death for historical figures like Pericles, Columbus, and Mozart. Using evidence drawn from diaries, historical records, and contemporary accounts, presenters perform theoretical autop- sies, which help them refine their ability to diagnose living patients. Social history is important to consider. Beethoven, for instance, never married. His writings mention prostitutes, and that supports a disputed diagnosis of syphilis, which could have caused his deafness and claimed his life. The cold cases in the extreme also humanize the celebrity corpses--- sometimes more than we'd like. Says Faith Fitzgerald, an internist who dissected Mozart's medical history: "We are disquieted when extraordinary people die from ordinary things." ---Cathy Newman ABSTRACT AUTOPSIES Here are five notable figures and the diseases that may have done them in. ALEXANDER 356-323 B.C. Progressive weakness and severe abdominal pain point to typhoid fever as the cause of the Macedonian king's demise. MOZART 1756-91 The composer was likely afflicted by a streptococcal infection, which might have led to a fatal heart disease or kidney disorder. PERICLES 495-429 B.C. References to a blistering rash and accounts of the Plague of Athens make smallpox the Greek statesman's likely cause of death. COLUMBUS 1451-1506 Reactive arthritis, following a bacterial infection caught from parrots aboard his ship, might have been fatal to the New World explorer. HEROD 73-4 B.C. The king of Judaea seems to have suffered from hardening of the arteries and may have died of heart failure.