Last Updated on October 28, 2016 by Katie Sisel Distributor

Jane Austen — What did she die of? Did Jane Austen have hemochromatosis?
In recent times most of the Jane Austen novels have been made into movies for the large and small screen. Her writing has captured the imagination of readers worldwide.

When Jane Austen died on 18 July 1817 she was only 41 years old.

Of the six novels she had written four had been published prior to her death. Though these works were published anonymously, the author was known to a small group of admirers. Her death at an early age robbed the world of further novels. What was the cause of her untimely death? In 1964, and 147 years after her death, Sir Zachary Cope a medical practitioner wrote an article for the British Medical Journal speculating that her death was a caused by Addison’s disease. Sir Zachary had been studying Jane Austen’s letters for clues that might shed light on the reasons for her untimely death. In 1964 hemochromatosis was considered to be a rare condition that affected only males. This would have naturally led Sir Zachary to discount this disease as a possible cause of Jane Austen’s death.

The main characteristics of Jane Austen’s last illness seem to have been its insidious onset and about a year before her death intermittent progressive weakness and languor, gastric upset and discolouration of the skin. Sir Zachary’s discussion of the differential diagnosis, included pernicious anaemia, myasthenia gravis and cancer of the stomach. All of these illnesses share close ties with hemochromatotosis. In his final diagnosis, he settled on Addison’s disease, as it helped explain the change in her skin colour (1817 was a time when fashion valued white skin in females).

In July 1916, she had a feeling of weakness or tiredness and within a few weeks she experience severe back pain. Within three months she was declining social invitations due to her increasing tiredness. In one of her letters at the time addressed to her family, she states that bile is at the bottom of her illness which was indicative of gastrointestinal irritation. In February of 1817 we learn that there was a pain in one knee and later she writes to her niece that she has had a good deal of fever and indifferent nights, and also complains that her complexion is black and white and every wrong colour.

The last few hours of her life were described by her sister Cassandra Austen. After returning to the house she found her sister to be recovering from faintness and depression but she was able to recover to give an account of Jane’s seizure; her sister wrote; ” I cannot say how soon afterwards she was seized again with the same faintness” which was followed by suffering her sister could not describe. Jane slipped into unconscious and died in the early hours of the morning on 18th July, 1817.

Sir Zachary says that no doubt many of the symptoms might be accounted for by a number of conditions, but there are few diseases which could account for them all.

However, anyone who has read a number of case histories of people who suffered from hemochromatosis will know that it’s one condition that covers all these symptoms.

Addison’s disease or syndrome is caused by an under active adrenal gland which is controlled by the pituitary gland in the brain. Symptoms may include weakness, fatigue, weight loss, low BP, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, appetite loss, cold intolerance and brown coloured skin. All of these can be associated with hemochromatosis. One of my husband’s Great Uncle’s died of Addison’s disease in 1934. There was no doubt that hemochromatotosis was prevalent within his family. The diagnosis was either a misdiagnosis or Addison’s disease could also be associated with an excess of iron.
Sir Zachary on talking about the black and white skin colour referred to by Jane Austen in his letters says ”There is no disease other that Addison’s disease that could present a face that was black and white and at the same time give rise to other symptoms described in her letter”. Wrong Sir Zachary, there is one other and it’s hemochromatosis. I have read a black and white description of hemochromatosis (HH) in an old medical paper from 1949 in reference to HH — hemochromatosis.

A further proof that Jane Austen died of HH hemochromatosis comes from a look at her families’ medical history. Her mother often went to Bath to treat her liver condition which she referred to as being liverish. Her father died of a heart condition whilst one brother was infertile and another died young. All this further points to the presence of hemochromatosis in the Austen family.

By Elizabeth Larking
Reference Jane Austen’s last illness, 18 July 964. British Medical Journal.