Feature Christmas 2010: History

Mozart’s 140 causes of death and 27 mental disorders

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c6789 (Published 10 December 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c6789
  1. Lucien R Karhausen, retired (former officer of the Commission of the European Communities)
  1. 1Paris, 75004, France
  1. Correspondence to: lucienkarhausen{at}gmail.com
  • Accepted 19 November 2010

The plethora of proposed causes of death and mental disorders suggested for Mozart stems from some obscure need to cut great artists down to size, writes Lucien R Karhausen

A recent epidemiological study has reintroduced the hypothesis that Mozart died from a nephritic syndrome caused by a streptococcal epidemic.1 It rests on the assumption that “according to the eyewitness accounts, the hallmark of Mozart’s final disease was severe edema.” However, the assumption is undocumented. In fact, four of the eyewitnesses reported their observations and none noticed severe oedema: Guldener wrote that he “made a careful inspection of the cadaver and saw nothing unusual.” Sophie Haibel, who attended his last illness, mentioned a swelling of the extremities.2

Last known portrait of Mozart (by Johann Georg Edlinger)

Gemaeldegalerie Berlin/Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Is this an isolated case? Not at all. This diagnostic inflation springs from the procrustean bed fallacy (selection and manipulation of the evidence),3 as well as from the build-up of undocumented manifestations, such as severe oedema, dyspnoea, convulsion, hemiplegia, lancinating pain, tender joints, and such like4; moreover, the “Mozarteum” skull is now known not to be Mozart’s.5

I have identified 140 (sometimes overlapping) possible causes of death, in addition to 85 other conditions. But Mozart died only once. Some causes are plausible, only few—maybe one, or maybe none of them—can be true, so most if not all of them are false.

Several dividing lines separate those authors who believe in foul play and those who reject it, between those who cling on to some sort of chronic disease process and those who believe in an acute condition, between those who twist the evidence and those who display a critical respect for the facts, as well as between those who seek some rare condition and those who are …

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