History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

03 December 2009

Jane Austen and Galileo's fingers

The kind of history news I love--straight from the CNN headlines: "Galileo's Missing Fingers Found in Jar" and..."What Really Killed Jane Austen?"

Apparently, three fingers were cut from Galileo's hand on March 1737 and a tooth removed from his lower jaw, when his body was moved in Florence (removing body parts as relics from the sanctified dead was a common practice at the time).

The jar with two of the fingers and the tooth went missing in 1905, and only recently resurfaced when somebody brought them to a museum in Florence. The actual cause of Galileo's death remains to be determined...but at least now with fingers and a tooth, there is enough DNA to spare for testing--which could shed some light on the blindness that afflict Galileo late in his life and during his final illness. To read the whole article check out: http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/europe/11/23/galileo.fingers/index.html

Today CNN posted: What Really Killed Jane Austen?

Now in almost every bio I've read or seen about here, the assumption was that she died of consumption, or tuberculosis...but apparently a doctor asserted in a paper he published (in 1964) that she died of Addison's disease (a failure of the adrenal glands). Katherine White, a social scientist who is a coordinator of the UK's Addison's Disease Self-Help Advisory Group says no way---Jane had none of the symptoms: headaches, sleepiness, slurred words, difficultly remembering words--that Jane Austen even wrote a comic poem to her sister 48 hrs before her death was proof she did not suffer from Addison's.

Without DNA, the retrospective diagnosis of Addison's disease (a condition barely recognized in Jane's lifetime) or lymphoma (another refuted cause of her death), will never be proven. Tuberculosis, which rampant in her time even amongst the middle class (milk was unpasteurized), is still the best guess.

Personally, I am glad that Ms. Austen left no DNA behind. We will really never know what killed her. Even the image of her posted here (a painting by Ozias Humphry, believed to be of Jane when she was about 14) is not a sure thing---but I'd prefer to have a mental image of her just like this.

Most of us I am sure, don't really need to know what really killed Jane Austen, or even Galileo. The work they left behind has given them immortality.

But the deaths of historical figures interest me, mostly because so many were premature or untimely. Have you ever researched the final hours of a famous historical figure?

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Blogger Unknown said...

Even the image of her posted here (a painting by Ozias Humphry, believed to be of Jane when she was about 14) is not a sure thing

There is NO WAY that is a painting of Jane Austen. The claim is that it is her at 14. So we're talking c 1789. The clothing, hair, etc. is entirely wrong for such a date, and clearly IMO comes from the early 19th century.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Great post, Kathrynn! In Howard Fast's romantic drama, "The Novelist," I played Jane Austen in her last years so I did a lot of research as to what might have killed her.

Whatever did (and 10 years or so ago, the general theory was that it was Addison's Disease), Jane had great difficulty keeping her food down, no matter what she ate and was therefore wasting away. Unsurprisingly, She had no appetite either.

What makes me think that what killed her was not (or not strictly), TB, was a symptom she exhibited that I've nver heard ascribed to other TB patients. She suffered discoloration -- dark bluish black patches in the crooks of her arms, on her tongue, and in other locations, consistent with something going on in the body which renders it difficult to process iron.

I agree with Kalen. That can't be Jane Austen at 14, for all the reasons she mentioned. Also, the face doesn't resemble other images of Jane.

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Kathrynn Dennis said...

Yep, Kalen. I agree. I was suspect because it isn't one of the images usually attributed to Jane Austen...I'd never seen this one before. But she is so pretty and young here. I just couldn't pin down the hair style and clothes to the 1780's...but I figured what do I know?

Thanks for the pointer!

12:20 PM  
Anonymous Kathrynn Dennis said...

Wow, Leslie. I've never hear about Jane with those symptons...sounds like a bleeding disorder, but not something I'd usually associated with TB. Hmmmm. Or Addison's or lymphoma....

12:23 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

I know nothing about medicine and tried to find out what those symptoms might be from. Doctors couldn't help me. The farthest I got was that it had something to do with the body's inability to process iron. Also, she never mentioned a cough, so personally I rule out TB, because isn't that the most obvious symptom. What Jane complained of most, was not being able to digest any food.

1:28 PM  
Blogger Margaret Porter said...

The image shown is the infamous Rice Portrait, purportedly of Jane Austen.

Rice Portrait Sale

More Here

The painting was long assumed to be by Zoffany but is now attributed to Ozias Humphrey (d. 1810).

7:42 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I've always been fascinated by those "How they died" type books that chronicle the odd ways famous people died. When I say famous, I mean people who actually DID something important to become famous. Not those people who just existed in the news.

Poe's death, as I am a big fan of his work, has always fascinated me. And they are STILL arguing about what killed him.

Still I am far more interested in Jane Austen's incredible work and especially knowing how ill she was during much of her life. I tend to think my life is terribly hard with working a full-time job and taking care of my rescued dogs, but good grief! This woman couldn't eat and still wrote some of the most amazing novels in history. Good thing for me to remember.

8:27 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

It's a lovely portrait, but there's just no way it's Austen. I think they drummed the whole thing up to increase interest and up the price. I remember when the sale happened and there was all kinds of discussions raging on the internet . . .

8:35 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

I once read all about the last moments and deaths (by murder) of the Romanov family... Nicholas II, Alexandra, and the children, including Anastasia.

It was heart-breaking, and I was sorry I did it.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Lynna, I wrote about that in NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES in my chapter on Nicholas and Alexandra. It was breaking my heart to type the words. The monsters shot the family's servants -- and killed Tatiana's dog, too -- with a rifle butt to its head (which should make Louisa especially livid)

3:17 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating post, Kathrynn! When I was in New York recently I went to a great Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library which included a number of her letters and also a letter Cassandra wrote to one of their nieces after Jane's death. I stood in front of it deciphering the words--quite heartbreaking.

I think the DNA research that has shown Napoleon Bonaparte was poisoned shed fascinating historical light.

10:38 AM  

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