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Published On July 8, 2021

BASIC RESEARCH

Podcast: Diagnosing the Long Dead

New data may solve two of the most famous “cold cases” in medical history—the deaths of Ernest Shackleton and Edgar Allen Poe.

Explorer Ernest Shackleton faced down the Antarctic ice with unmatched physical endurance. Yet he died unexpectedly in his 40s from a heart attack. Writer Edgar Allen Poe invented the detective story and twist ending. Yet his own death was more bizarre than anything he wrote, occurring shortly after he had been found in a strange city, unconscious and wearing someone else’s clothes.

Physicians have been drawn to medical “cold cases” since he dawn of the profession, and there are yearly conferences that explore possible diagnoses of historical figures. The patients themselves can’t benefit from new insights. Yet it doesn’t mean that these exercises are without their uses.

“I think they add life and excitement to medial practice,” says Paul Firth, head of the Division of Community and Global Health in the Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Firth himself led a team that recently published a paper about Shackleton’s maladies and untimely passing. Their verdict: an undocumented nutritional deficit.

Sorting through the medical clues can be difficult, especially for deaths that occurred long ago. For Edgar Allen Poe, “There wasn’t anything like an extensive autopsy or a postmortem,” says Ryan Boyd, lecturer of behavioral analytics at the University of Lancaster in the United Kingdom. “If there even was something like a death certificate, it doesn’t exist anymore.” Yet despite the limitations, researchers have been able to fasten on new data points—in Poe’s use, his writings just before his death—to come up with new theories.

So what exactly killed Poe and Shackleton? Listen to the podcast below, and subscribe to future episodes on iTunes, Stitcher and other platforms.

Diagnosing the Long Dead