New Theory on Jane Austen’s Fatal Illness

Jane Austen died on 18 July 1817 at age forty-one. She left us with six major novels, letters, juvenilia, some miscellanea and a posthumous mystery. What caused her early demise? 

One hundred and ninety-two years later experts are still speculating on the fatal illness that robbed her of full life and us the possibility of more remarkable prose. There are a few clues from her letters and family recollections, but no surviving medical records. So, therein lies the mystery – and the sleuthing begins. 

In 1964, surgeon Sir Zachary Cope proposed that Addison’s disease which affects the adrenal gland could explain her “two-year deterioration into bed-ridden exhaustion, her unusual colouring, bilious attacks, rheumatic pains and the absence of more specific indicators of disease”, but it appears that this theory is not universally acknowledged. Jane Austen’s biography Claire Tomalin investigated Austen’s symptoms in 1997 while researching her bio Jane Austen: A Life and came up with her own conclusion. Lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system) and not Addison’s disease had taken her life. 

Now, an Addison’s disease expert Katherine White writing in the British Medical Journal’s Medical Humanities magazine thinks that the evidence points to tuberculosis contracted from drinking unpasteurized milk. She argues that one of the symptoms of Addison’s is mental confusion, and we know that Jane Austen retained her writing faculties to the end, composing the comic poem When Winchester Races two days before her death. 

So the speculation continues. We may never know with complete uncertainty what ailment claimed the novelist life. Honestly, I am fine with that. Let’s just hope that some poor fool does not exhume her body from Winchester Cathedral to do a C.S.I. on her.

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13 thoughts on “New Theory on Jane Austen’s Fatal Illness

  1. Laurel Ann, I asked this question on my Twitter account: If Jane died of tuberculosis, why did her letters (or her family) not mention her excessive coughing, or her coughing up blood? This theory seems a bit speculative (in my humble opinion.)

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  2. Her death is really shocking. And just imagined if she were as healthy as ever. We would have more Austen books in our bookshelves.

    If medical records were present then it would add some important clues as to how she died.

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  3. I really had no idea that people were this dedicated to the mysterious reasons for her death. Wow. Its a shame that this is speculated on. I’d much rather be reading her books, etc.

    Heaven forbid someone exhumes her body. I dare say, please don’t!

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  4. Interesting post, yes, the popular theory has always been that her death was caused by Addison’s disease for which there was no cure at the time. I remember being very surprised reading Claire Tomalin’s biography and her theory that her death may have been due to cancer – doesn’t she suggest breast cancer?

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  5. Claire Tomalin suggested lymphoma. Carol Shields suggested breast cancer. I’m not convinced either way (though Tomalin makes a much better case).

    Team Addison’s here. (Okay, that sounds weird.)

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    • Mags – many recent blog headlines are now claiming that cows killed Jane Austen. It has become a joke. I wish they would let this unsolvable mystery lie in peace and stop speculating.

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  6. It is indeed more than sad that she died so early, but people need to let sleeping dogs lie. I’d much rather see people digging up more history and information on Jane Austen’s personal life than her body…The thought of someone pulling her out for a CSI experiment is beyond horrid.

    Thanks for keeping us updated though, interesting stuff.

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