Extract from British Medical Journal, 18 July 1964

Object name: Extract from British Medical Journal of 18th July 1964

Object number: CHWJA:JAH291

Category: Newspaper extract

Description: Newspaper extract from British Medical Journal dated 18th July 1964, titled ‘Jane Austen’s Last Illness’ by Zachary Cope.

Made: 1964

Context: When Jane Austen died on 18th July 1817, her cause of death was unknown. Over the past 60 years, medical professionals have retrospectively studied the symptoms she described in her letters in an attempt to make a diagnosis.

The eminent physician and surgeon, Sir Zachary Cope, was the first to publish his conclusions in this article, which appeared in the British Medical Journal of 18th July 1964, the 147th anniversary of Jane’s death.  In the article, he suggested that Jane had died of the endocrine disorder Addison’s disease.  There were dissenting voices both at the time and since with others suggesting her symptoms were more typical of Hodgkins lymphoma.  Over the intervening years, other theories have also emerged including bovine tuberculosis and cancer of the stomach.

In 2021, the late Michael D. Sanders, Emeritus Consultant at St Thomas’ Hospital London, published a paper with a colleague making a strong case for the autoimmune condition lupus erythematosus being the cause of Jane’s death.

Without the patient to examine, any theory can only be based on an interpretation of what Jane said in her letters which are incomplete as Cassandra destroyed many of Jane’s letters before her own death.  Whilst it is very unlikely any firm diagnosis can ever be made, the research and debate on the matter reflects the ongoing fascination with the short life and untimely death of Jane Austen.

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