Study: Tainted Meat May Have Killed Mozart

C H I C A G O, June 11, 2001 -- Forget rheumatic fever, kidney stones, heart disease, pneumonia and even poisoning. What may have really killed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were pork cutlets.

The latest theory about the composer's untimely death on Dec. 5, 1791, at age 35 in Vienna suggests the culprit was likely trichinosis.

The illness is usually caused by eating undercooked pork infested by the worm, and could explain all of Mozart's symptoms, which included fever, rash, limb pain and swelling, says Dr. Jan. V. Hirschmann of Puget Sound Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Seattle.

Composer Enjoyed Pork

Hirschmann offers as damning evidence an innocuous little letter Mozart wrote to his wife 44 days before his illness began, as documented in a 1999 biography.

"What do I smell? … pork cutlets! Che Gusto (What a delicious taste). I eat to your health," Mozart wrote.

"If his final illness was indeed trichinosis, whose incubation period is up to 50 days, Mozart may have unwittingly disclosed the precise cause of his death — those very pork chops," Hirschmann said.

His eight-page report, based on an examination of medical literature, historical documents and Mozart biographies, is published in the June 11 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

Mozart died 15 days after he became ill. His doctors offered only a vague cause of death — "severe miliary fever" — and no autopsy was performed. His wife, Constanze, reportedly said after his death that Mozart thought he was being poisoned, and rumors circulated that his enemies, including rival composer Antonio Salieri, may have done him in.

Since then, medical theorists have largely discounted foul play.

Hirschmann, an infectious disease specialist, said Mozart's symptoms did match those of an unspecified epidemic disease going around Vienna at the time. Trichinosis wasn't identified until the 1800s, when there were several deadly outbreaks in Europe. Drugs since have been developed that can kill the worms and treat the symptoms, and fatal cases now are rare.

Hirschmann noted that complications of trichinosis can include pneumonia and heart problems — culprits listed in other Mozart theories, which Hirschmann says don't adequately explain all the features of Mozart's illness.

Dr. Faith Fitzgerald, a University of California-Davis professor of medicine whose rheumatic fever theory drew front-page attention last year, isn't offended that Hirschmann has come up with a different explanation for Mozart's death.

No Grave to Dig Up

"There have been 150 separate diagnoses proposed, and now there's another one," she said. "It does strike me as somewhat strange the investment people have in something that is virtually unknowable."

Mozart's grave was dug up about seven years after his death so it could be reused, and his remains were dispersed. Hirschmann acknowledged that not being able to be proved wrong "makes it much more enjoyable to speculate."

Doctors like to review the master's death because "it's fun and because it's Mozart," Fitzgerald said. "I personally think that he died because they needed a new choirmaster in heaven."