Second Opinions

History winds up in the waiting room

If the story were presented as a formal medical case study, it might begin as follows:

S. is a thirty-five-year-old male of Middle Eastern ancestry with a long history of deceitfulness, physical violence, and other forms of unacceptable behavior. He is an only child; his mother had to be warned not to drink during pregnancy. The subject is known to be inordinately fastidious about his hair. His libido is powerful and indiscriminate. He is a nonsmoker. His life is believed to have culminated in a spectacular murder-suicide.

The case is that of Samson, son of Manoah, whose story is recounted in the biblical book of Judges, and it was cited not long ago in a letter to the editor of the Archives of General Psychiatry. The authors, led by Eric Lewin Altschuler, of the University of California at San Diego, suggest that Samson probably suffered from what would today be called antisocial-personality disorder, or ASPD. They note that psychiatry's official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual requires that three out of seven criteria be met in order to advance a diagnosis of ASPD, and that Samson's behavior met six of them. He was aggressive and impulsive. ("And he found a fresh jawbone of an ass, and put out his hand and seized it, and with it he slew a thousand men.") He was cruel to small animals. ("So Samson went and caught three hundred foxes, and took torches; and he turned them tail to tail, and put a torch between each pair of tails.") He lied and he stole. He preened and he gloated. He clearly manifested, according to the doctors, a "failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behavior."

If you're like me, you probably don't settle down with the latest issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry or The Annals of Thoracic Surgery or Genitourinary Medicine the instant it arrives. And yet anyone now catching up on medical literature from the past few years can't help being struck by the vast amount of attention devoted to intriguing cases from long ago. Large numbers of living Americans may have difficulty gaining access to decent health care, but if you happen to be a deceased historical personage, your chances of attracting first-rate medical attention are getting better all the time.

Physicians of yore did not always have a clear understanding of the ailments that afflicted their patients, but they left clues that have encouraged later speculation. Investigations by modern doctors have suggested that Catherine the Great suffered from syphilis, that Kant suffered from Alzheimer's, and that Brahms suffered from sleep apnea; that Van Gogh and Saint Teresa of Avila were afflicted with temporal-lobe epilepsy; that Chopin was felled by emphysema or cystic fibrosis; and that Mozart was done in by streptococcus, not by Salieri. An article in Clinical Toxicology argues that the Emperor Julian the Apostate and his successor, the Emperor Jovian, each experienced an episode of carbon-monoxide poisoning caused by the use of burning coals to heat a poorly ventilated room. (Julian recovered; Jovian, who had gone to bed in a drunken stupor, never woke up.) King Herod the Great underwent an unhappy demise. The chronicler Flavius Josephus, in The Jewish War, observed, "Distemper seized upon his whole body, and greatly disordered all his parts with various symptoms; for there was a gentle fever upon him, and an intolerable itching over all the surface of his body, and continual pains in his colon, and dropsical tumors about his feet." A closely reasoned analysis in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine provides a diagnosis: "end-stage type II diabetes mellitus."

The medical profession has long been home to a peculiar breed of hobbyist-detectives, most of whom work independently. They have started to find one another. For the past seven years the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Baltimore VA Medical Center have hosted an annual "historical clinico-pathologic conference," the centerpiece of which is a case study of a medical mystery drawn from the history books. Each case study is handled by a designated investigator. "E.P. is a 40-year-old man who was brought to the emergency room in early October for evaluation of lethargy and confusion." Thus began the discussion, in 1995, of the case of Edgar Allan Poe. (The investigator that year, R. Michael Benitez, ventured the contrarian argument that Poe succumbed to rabies encephalitis, not to the effects of heavy drinking.) In 1996 the mystery case began like this:

A 32-year-old man presented with fever and pain in the right upper quadrant. The patient had been well until the day after a night of heavy alcohol consumption (12 pints of wine), when fatigue and generalized aches developed ... The patient was a native of northern Greece and was active in military service. He had traveled extensively through Asia Minor and the Middle East and to the Indian frontier. He had been married twice and was bisexual.

So: what brought an end to Alexander the Great? In the view of the investigator, it was "Salmonella typhi enteritis, complicated by bowel perforation and ascending paralysis."

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In