Study: Tainted Meat May Have Killed Mozart

C H I C A G O, June 11, 2001 -- Forget rheumatic fever, kidney stones, heartdisease, pneumonia and even poisoning. What may have really killedWolfgang 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 likelytrichinosis.

The illness is usually caused by eating undercooked porkinfested 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 inSeattle.

Composer Enjoyed Pork

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

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

"If his final illness was indeed trichinosis, whose incubationperiod is up to 50 days, Mozart may have unwittingly disclosed theprecise cause of his death — those very pork chops," Hirschmannsaid.

His eight-page report, based on an examination of medicalliterature, historical documents and Mozart biographies, ispublished in the June 11 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

Mozart died 15 days after he became ill. His doctors offeredonly a vague cause of death — "severe miliary fever" — and noautopsy was performed. His wife, Constanze, reportedly said afterhis death that Mozart thought he was being poisoned, and rumorscirculated that his enemies, including rival composer AntonioSalieri, may have done him in.

Since then, medical theorists have largely discounted foul play.

Hirschmann, an infectious disease specialist, said Mozart'ssymptoms did match those of an unspecified epidemic disease goingaround Vienna at the time. Trichinosis wasn't identified until the1800s, when there were several deadly outbreaks in Europe. Drugssince have been developed that can kill the worms and treat thesymptoms, and fatal cases now are rare.

Hirschmann noted that complications of trichinosis can includepneumonia and heart problems — culprits listed in other Mozarttheories, which Hirschmann says don't adequately explain all thefeatures of Mozart's illness.

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

No Grave to Dig Up

"There have been 150 separate diagnoses proposed, and nowthere's another one," she said. "It does strike me as somewhatstrange the investment people have in something that is virtuallyunknowable."

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

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

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