Education And Debate

Illnesses and creativity: Byron's appetites, James Joyce's gut, and Melba's meals and mésalliances

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.315.7123.1697 (Published 20 December 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:1697
  1. JH Baron, honorary professorial lecturera
  1. a Gastroenterology Division, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Box 1069, New York, NY 10029-6574, USA
  1. Correspondence to: Dr J H Baron Surgical Division, Imperial College School of Medicine, Hammersmith Hospital, London W12 0NN

Introduction

Even for amateurs the retrospective rediagnosis of the famous is one of the lowest forms of medical history, but I hope this three course dinner with its appetiser (Byron), main course (Joyce), and dessert (Melba) will prove worthy of Christmas 1997.

Byron's appetites

George Gordon Byron1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 was born in 1788 and was unfortunate in his ancestors. On his father's side were psychopathic noblemen. His great uncle, the 5th “wicked” lord, killed his cousin in 1765 in a duel over the best way to hang game, and after his wife left him begat a bastard by one of his servants, “Lady Betty.” 5 Byron's admiral grandfather, “Foulweather Jack”, was an irresponsible rake, as was his father, “Mad Jack”, who degraded, impoverished and deserted Byron's mother, had an incestuous affair with his own sister Frances,7 and died in 1792. Catherine Gordon, Byron's mother, boasted descent from James I of Scotland, but her ancestors were brigands and melancholics, with her grandfather in 1760 and her father in 1779 both drowning, presumed to be suicidal.

Byron's widowed mother abused him for his father's vices. Byron claimed his nursemaid beat and seduced him.9 In 1798 the 5th lord died, and at the age of 10 Byron inherited the title and moved with his mother from Aberdeen to Newstead Abbey, given to the family by Henry VIII. He lived there on and off until he left England in 1816, never to return.

It would be presumptuous to extol the glories of Byron's poetry or his role as the exemplar of the Romantic hero. His general medical history is well known, especially his lameness, usually thought to be a club foot, for which he wore a brace and boot “which haunted him like a curse.”2 It was …

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