Researchers at the British Library came up with a new theory regarding Jane Austen’s death. After an analysis on her spectacles, they suggested that it was not Addison’s disease that led to her death, but arsenic poisoning.
Jane Austen died in 1817, aged 41. The theories suggested that she was suffering from Addison’s disease, which causes the adrenal glands to produce fewer steroid hormones than needed. Such a condition causes vomiting, abdominal pain, darkening of the skin, and, eventually, loss of consciousness.
There were other theories that suggested the fact that Jane Austen had cancer or tuberculosis. However, after a more detailed analysis, the researchers found traces of arsenic in three of her pairs of spectacles. This could have led to her developing of cataracts and, in the end, to her poisoning.
The first time when someone suggested arsenic poisoning as Jane Austen’s cause of death was in 2011. Back then, crime writer Lindsay Ashford claimed that Austen’s doctor might have prescribed her arsenic for rheumatism. She explains everything in her novel, The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen.
The spectacles’ analysis brings interesting results
Now, the British Library brought evidence that supported this claim. Sandra Tuppen, one of the curator, revealed on Thursday that they had tested three pairs of spectacles that belonged to Austen. These pairs were donated to the library in 1999 by a descendant of the author.
They discovered that the glasses were meant for close-up tasks, such as reading. However, one of the pair was stronger than the others. It is well-known that Jane Austen had eyesight problems, and the researchers suggested that her eyesight grew even weaker.
Simon Barnard, an optometrist from London, explained that Austen could have developed cataracts from an arsenic infection. It seems quite unlikely that a doctor would prescribe arsenic for treatment, but it was not so unlikely during the 19th century.
Where did the arsenic come from?
Austen also suffered from other conditions, such as rheumatism. During the 19th century, doctors usually prescribed arsenic for the treatment of this disease. One of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning is hyperpigmentation. Before her death, Austen revealed the following in a letter:
“I have had a good deal of fever at times and indifferent nights, but I am considerably better now and recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong color.”
Hyperpigmentation is also a symptom of Addison’s disease, so it is not clear what was the precise cause of Austen’s death. However, there is a way to solve the mystery.
After her death, her hair was cut and given to her relatives, and a lock of her hair is currently found at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, England. An analysis on her hair would reveal if she was indeed poisoned with arsenic.
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