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Medicine: Postmortems

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In the certainty that none of his “patients” could sue him for gossiping about their ailments, James Kemble, an amiable Harley Street surgeon, last week published his postmortem diagnoses of various historical personages.*

George Gordon Lord Byron’s “lameness was due to congenital clubfoot of the talipes equino-varus type, affecting the right foot only.” Ill at ease with men the poet turned to women and there “his successto some extent palliated the pain which deformity had inflicted on his pride. . . . Byron died in uremic coma, a not uncommon end for le ban viveur.” Christopher Columbus, after siring Diego by his wife and Fernando by the mistress of his widowerhood, contracted syphilis which Dr. Kemble contends is a New World disease. “With his limbs rigid and useless, his brain affected and his heart enfeebled, Columbus lingered on until . . .he died from cardiac failure due to valvular disease.”

King Henry VIII suffered from syphilis which he gave to at least four of his six wives. No. 3, Jane Seymour, mother of puny Edward VI, “died before any such misfortune could befall her.” No. 4, ugly Anne of Cleves, escaped because “the marriage was never consummated.” Diagnostician Kemble argues that Henry divorced and executed his wives simply in hopes of siring a male heir. . . . “He died primarily from heart failure. Just as his life had been ruled by his syphilitic infection, so his death was occasioned by its ravages upon his heart and blood vessels.” In Henry’s daughter Queen Mary, “the evidence of congenital syphilis became, surely, all too plain. Her face was prematurely old and scarred, her hair thin and patchy; she had a ‘square head,’ with the forehead abnormally protruding.” Queen Elizabeth, Henry’s other daughter, “suffered a heritage of ill-health from her father . . . knew that she would never bear any children of her own.” Queen Anne “was small in stature, and small women are always the most prolific. . . . She married Prince George of Denmark in 1683, when she was 19, and had 17 children in 25 years, before George’s death and the menopause brought to a doubly sure conclusion her attempts to produce an acceptable heir to carry on the Stuart succession. At the mere sight of George she fell pregnant; but of all these children only six lived long enough to be given names.” Queen Anne was a heavy drinker. Her many pregnancies caused varicose veins in her legs. One vein ulcerated,producing toxaemia and death.

Louis XV died of smallpox after “a Bacchanalian party at which a dairymaid was bathed, combed and perfumed, and placed in his bed. . . .” Next morning he fell ill. The incident, says Dr. Kemble, “was not the sourceof Louis’ infection, for a period of some twelve days elapses betweenthe date of contact with smallpox and the appearance of the first signs of illness.”

Before her death, Catherine the Great of Russia, “had lost all her teeth, she was very fat, her legs began to swell, and she was incapable of any degree of exertion; no doubt she had developed good hard pipestem arteries. … On the evening of Nov. 5, 1796, she retired early. The next morning she got up sooner than was her custom, had her usual five cups of strong coffee for breakfast and went back to her room. She had taken a throne which had formerly been used by the kings of Poland, and had installed it in her antechamber as a commode. Here, on this morning of Nov. 6, about 9 o’clock, as if in vindication of her disrespectful gesture, Catherine had a seizure, and was found by her attendant fallen unconscious to the floor ‘her face convulsed, foaming at the mouth, the death-rattle already in her throat.’ She had apparently had an apoplectic stroke. . . . At the postmortem, it is reported, two stones were found in her gall bladder.” Cleopatra “was the ultimate product of centuries of the most intensive inbreeding.” She proves that “if in a family there is an absence of seriously undesirable stigmata, both physical and mental, and a definite preponderance of good traits over bad ones, then intermarriage between its several members will tend to produce an ever-improving stock.” For infamous Judge George Jeffreys (1648-89), who prosecuted the enemies of King James II of England so vehemently that his courts have ever after been called “the Bloody Assizes,” Surgeon Kemble has a kind word. Judge Jeffreys suffered with a stone in his bladder.* Says Dr. Kemble: “I know of no worse torture for a man suffering from stone than to have had to remainin an upright sitting position so that the stone pressed and tossed upon the sensitive base of the bladder, and to have been jogged up & down in a rattling coach, so that, with every jolt, he dug in his heels and rose from his seat in an endeavour to minimize the movement of the stone. No wonder that … he was in none the best of humour!”

*IDOLS & INVALIDS—James Kemble—Doubleday, Doran ($3.50).

*Claiming that vibration of the Normandie dislodged a stone in her left kidney, provoking an infection which necessitated an operation and loss of a $250-a-week singing contract, Russian Singer Nastia Poliakova last week sued the French Line for $100,000 damages.

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