Quirks & Quarks

Diagnosing the dead: what killed Goya and made Florence Nightingale suffer?

An annual medical conference looks at famous historical figures who died of mysterious ailments and suggests a likely cause of death based on modern post mortem techniques.
Goya's paintings were more vibrant prior to his illness. (Wikimedia Commons)

The conference

The University of Maryland School of Medicine hosts an annual Clinicopathological Conference in which a contemporary medical diagnosis is applied to the death of a famous historical figure.

Often the so-called 'patient' died of a mysterious ailment or disease that was unknown or untreatable during the time of the person's life.

Experts are given what was known about the illness and are asked to provide the most likely cause of death. This year's 'patient' was the Spanish painter Francisco Goya.  

The 2017 'patient'

Francisco Goya is considered the most important Spanish painter of the late 18th and early 19th century. Goya led a healthy life until the age of 46. At that time he began experiencing a variety of ailments including a loud buzzing in his ears, shivers, hallucinations, headaches, difficulty seeing and partial paralysis. After being confined to his bed for a period of five months, all of those symptoms slowly disappeared, with the exception of the buzzing in his ears.

Goya eventually suffered a complete loss of hearing which persisted for the remainder of his life. This upset the painter and had a profound influence on his art. Dr. Ronna Hertzano, a University of Maryland surgeon specializing in the head and neck, believes Goya suffered from Susac's Syndrome, a rare autoimmune condition characterized by three main symptoms: brain disease, hearing loss, and vision loss.   

Goys'a illness influenced his Black Paintings. (Wikimedia Commons)

Previous patients

Dr. Philip Mackowiak, professor emeritus from the University of Maryland's School of Medicine, helps organize the conference. He summarizes the findings of two former "patients"— the founder of modern nursing Florence Nightingale, and Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated while serving as president of the United States.

Nightingale likely suffered from PTSD, which was not known in the Victorian era. Given today's trauma care, Lincoln would not only have survived the assassination, he would have been able to continue serving as president.