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What killed Jane Austen?

December 2, 2009 |  8:00 am

Jane Austen’s works continue to be read nearly 200 years after her death, and a new analysis of her personal correspondence has led an expert in Addison’s disease to suggest that the pre-Victorian novelist didn’t die of the condition, as is commonly thought.

Janeausten A careful reading of the letters Austen wrote in the last two years of her life has convinced Katherine White that the author of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” probably died of bovine tuberculosis, which she could have contracted by drinking unpasteurized milk.

Addison’s disease is a hormonal disorder in which the adrenal glands don’t make enough cortisol or aldosterone. These hormones help maintain blood pressure and allow other crucial systems to function properly. Until a treatment was developed in the 1950s, Addison’s disease was fatal.

But several of the key symptoms – including mental confusion and generalized pain – are absent in Austen’s personal writings, says Katherine White, who helps run the Addison’s Disease Self Help Group in the Britain. In fact, in a letter written less than two months before her death, Austen told a friend that “My head was always clear, and I had scarcely any pain.”

Also missing is any reference to weight loss or loss or appetite, which are common symptoms among Addison’s patients, White reported this week in the British journal Medical Humanities.

Dr. Zachary Cope diagnosed Austen with Addison’s disease in 1964 based on the fact that she suffered from exhaustion, rheumatic pains, bilious attacks and discoloration of her skin. Some of those symptoms are also consistent with a diagnosis of lymphoma.

However, White said in a statement that she thinks TB is the most likely cause of death because it “would have been more common in Jane Austen’s time and would offer a simpler explanation of her symptoms.”

Austen biographer Claire Tomalin said she finds the new analysis fascinating.

Tomalin said she had spoken with a physician who also questioned the diagnosis of Addison’s disease during her own research for “Jane Austen: A Life.” In a commentary published by The Times of London, she wrote:

I find it extraordinary that Austen, who died in 1817, finished "Persuasion" and that she embarked on "Sanditon," an extremely funny fragment mocking hypochondria, in her last illness. It shows what a sense of humour she had that she could do that when she was dying.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: Unpasteurized milk, not Addison’s disease, may have caused the death of British novelist Jane Austen (portrayed here by actress Olivia Williams). Credit: PBS/KCET