Researcher says physician killed Mozart

December 03, 1991|By New York Times

Since his death 200 years ago this week, music lovers have wondered what killed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Physicians and musicologists have their pet culprits: strep, rheumatic fever or even poisoning at the hand of Antonio Salieri, the jealous court composer.

Now a British researcher has a new theory -- Mozart was a victim of his own physician and the primitive medicine of his day.

Dr. Ian James of London's Royal Free Hospital advanced the lTC idea at a recent meeting of the British Association for Performing Arts of Medicine, according to the current issue of Physician's Weekly.

James concluded that Mozart's physician, Dr. Thomas Franz Closset, had been using antimony, a metal that figures in many alloys, to treat the composer for depression, fever and fatigue.

Mozart's symptoms of swollen hands and feet, fainting, pustular eruptions, kidney failure and putrid odor, as well as depression and exhaustion, are symptomatic of antimony poisoning, according to James.

Mozart's son and sister-in-law, in letters written after visiting the dying composer, both remarked on his putrid odor, Davies said. The weekly noted that the physician who later treated another composer, Robert Schumann, was likewise accused of poisoning his patient, in that case with mercury.

The Weekly reported, however, that another "Mozart sleuth," Peter Davies, an Australian gastroenterologist, called the hypothesis nonsense. From the available data, he said, it was obvious that Mozart died of Schoenlein-Henoch syndrome, in which blood leaks under the skin, giving it a purple tint, after a streptococcal infection.

The weekly said James suggested that analysis of the manuscript of Mozart's Requiem, written as he lay dying, might reveal traces of antimony being used in his treatment.

The theory that Mozart was poisoned by Salieri, the jealous composer, was featured in the play and movie "Amadeus."

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