Strep Throat Killed Mozart, New Theory Argues

Two hundred and fifty years after his birth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart might be the most known classical music composer, but his legacy is still shadowed by a mysterious death.

Buried in an unmarked grave, without a casket or his widow at the funeral, historians don't know exactly what killed the 35-year-old musical genius Dec. 5, 1791. His remains have been lost to history.

Eyewitness records written a decade after Mozart's death indicate that the composer was extremely swollen during his final days of illness and had back pain. By using that little bit of information, many have theorized about his cause of death -- from poison by the hand of a jealous pupil who was convinced Mozart was having an affair with his wife, to scarlet fever or trichinosis.

But in a new article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers in London, Vienna and Amsterdam are proposing that Mozart actually died from complications of a bad case of strep throat going around a nearby military hospital.

How Details of Mozart's Death Were Buried in a Pauper's Grave

"He was thrown in a pauper's grave and nobody marked it very well," said John Baron, professor of musicology at Tulane University in New Orleans. "Mozart had scarlet fever as a child and his health was never good as a result after that."

"Some of the far-fetched theories are that he was poisoned," said Baron. "But the prevailing theory is that he was in frail health, and it was the middle of winter and he was not taking care of himself."

Mozart's death registry simply lists hitziges Frieselfieber, fever and rash.

Dr. Bruce Goldberger, chief of forensic pathology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, doesn't see a way any of these theories could be proven.

"Without the body, we're left with speculation," said Goldberger. "At this point, I'm not sure a body would help you either."

Yet, historians and Mozart fans may never let it rest.

This week's article took quite a different approach to the mystery of Mozart's death. While other historians attempted to match an infection to Mozart's reported symptoms in his final days, the authors of the new paper decided to document which diseases killed other adults in Vienna during the winters of 1790, 1791, and 1792 and then matched those outbreaks to the Mozart's purported symptoms.

"I think those other theories are trying to explain a very unexpected death," said Andrew Steptoe, co-author on the study and a professor of psychology and epidemiology at University College London.

Mozart Died of Sudden, Unexplained Illness

"It was unusual to die within a couple of weeks of symptoms. Up until that time he seemed to be extremely active," said Steptoe.

By carefully translating and analyzing the death registries kept for the 3,442 men 1,569 women killed by disease in Vienna during those winter years, Steptoe and his colleagues came to the theory that Mozart died of strep complications.

As it turns out, an outbreak of streptococcal infection (like the strep bacteria in a sore throat) killed an inordinate amount of young men in Vienna the winter Mozart died.

Steptoe guessed that Mozart may have caught the infection in a crowd at the Opera House where his "Magic Flute" opera was playing, or at the Masonic lodge where Mozart was a member.

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