Jane Austen poisoned with arsenic? Not so fast, experts say

Posted at 9:40 AM, Mar 11, 2017

Three antiquated pairs of spectacles displayed in the British Library are causing pulses to flutter clear across the globe.

English novelist Jane Austen from an original family portrait. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Legendary author Jane Austen was poisoned with arsenic, proposed Sandra Tuppen, lead curator of Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1601-1850 at the British Library, in a blog post Thursday.

However, many scholars and medical experts say this theory is bunk, more crime fiction than plausible truth.

Questionable spectacles

Austen was born in 1775 and died in 1817. During her four decades of life, she wrote six major novels, including “Emma” and “Pride and Prejudice.” According to family lore, the three pairs of glasses on which the arsenic theory is based definitely belonged to their Jane.

“The glasses were entrusted to the care of the British Library by Austen’s great-great-great-niece in 1999, along with Austen’s treasured portable writing desk (in which they had been stored) and several other Austen artifacts, including an ink well and an embroidered glasses case,” Tuppen wrote in an email.

Although tests conducted by the library revealed that all three would be helpful for someone doing close work, such as writing, each pair is of different strength, one considerably more powerful than the others, she explained.

When consulted by the British Library, Simon Barnard, a London-based optometrist, suggested a number of theories to explain this variation in prescription strength, including using each pair for a different activity. For example, one pair might have helped her see while writing, another while she worked on embroidery.

Austen is known to have complained of weak eyesight. Over time, she may have needed glasses of increasing strength due to some underlying health problem, suggested Barnard, a visiting professor at Hadassah Academic College in Israel.

For example, diabetes can cause a sufferer’s eyesight to grow worse if it induces cataracts. However, diabetes was fatal in Austen’s time, so she would not have lived long enough to develop cataracts and require stronger glasses.

“Austen is known to have suffered from rheumatism,” or joint pain, Tuppen said. “In one of her final letters she writes of suffering from bilious attacks and a good deal of fever.”

Based on her health, Barnard hypothesized, a more likely cause of cataracts would be accidental poisoning. After all, some 19th-century English water supplies and medicines, which Austen might have taken, were contaminated with — cue the dramatic music — arsenic.

Did arsenic kill Austen?

According to Dr. Cheryl Kinney, a national board member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, many things contained arsenic during the author’s lifetime: “Water, the soil, homemade wine (which Jane Austen refers to in her letters), wallpaper, clothing that had green pigment, glue, and medicines (Fowler’s Solution would have been… the most widely advertised).

“And arsenic is a white powder — a careless chemist or apothecary could easily have mixed up one white powder for another. There are reports of that happening,” Kinney, a Dallas-based gynecologist, wrote in an email. “People would often take arsenic on their own as they were convinced that arsenic in controlled quantities could improve energy, make you plumper, and more vital. Pots and jars of skin creams also could contain arsenic.”

But the arsenic theory just doesn’t hold water, Kinney says.

“There are many other more likely causes of cataracts than arsenic poisoning,” she said. “Although some recent studies from Asia have shown a loose association of chronic arsenic poisoning in water with cataract formation, the studies only show association, not causation.”

After consulting an ophthalmologist at her hospital, Kinney said it’s more likely that “if the glasses belong to Austen,” she might simply have been losing her eyesight, just as “most people begin to lose vision acuity in their late 30s/early 40s.”

Janine Barchas, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, addresses the eyeglasses issue in a forthcoming paper mentioned in Tuppens’ blog post.

In one of her novels, Austen name-dropped a famous ophthalmologist of her time, which caused Barchas to wonder, How would Austen know an eye specialist? To learn more, Barchas and her co-author, Elizabeth Picherit, examined the three pairs of eyeglasses exhibited by the British Library and verified their historical accuracy. Next, they confirmed that the glasses indeed belonged to Austen.

“If you’re asking me, ‘Were they Jane Austen’s?’ I think they probably were,” Barchas said. “And I would emphasize the ‘probably,’ because you can never know, but I think that it is likely.”

“The next leap in logic: Do they evidence cataracts? I’m not a medical expert, but my medical experts who I consulted don’t necessarily draw that conclusion,” she said. “And are cataracts caused by arsenic, well, that’s another quantum leap in itself.”

Considering the set of assumptions put forth by Tuppen, Barchas said, she loses the “whole plot.”

For the record, Tuppen stressed in her email that “the suggestion that [Austen] had cataracts is a theory, rather than something proven.”

Yet in her blog post, Tuppen referenced crime writer Lindsay Ashford’s suggestion that Austen died of arsenic poisoning and then noted, “the variations in the strength of the British Library’s three pairs of spectacles may indeed give further credence to the theory that Austen suffered from arsenic poisoning, albeit accidental.”

“I’m willing to entertain a number of ifs before that tips the scales for me, but this [arsenic theory] is reckless,” Barchas said.

Brief life and early death

Based on the long lives of her mother and sister, Austen should have had another four decades, noted Barchas.

“There have been a number of medical historians in the past, since the mid-1960s, who have diagnosed Jane Austen in absentia and who have used new medical knowledge as it has become available to glance back at the death of Austen, who did die prematurely,” Barchas said. But none of these theories of well-respected medical historians included arsenic poisoning.

According to Sheryl Craig, an editor for the Jane Austen Society of North America, “There are several theories floating around, including that she died of cancer, tuberculosis and Addison’s disease.”

Addison’s disease is a gland disorder with symptoms including fatigue, weight loss, depression, darkening of the skin and abdominal pain.

“I’ve heard some very convincing presentations by doctors for the Addison’s disease theory, so, when asked, I always say that it was probably Addison’s disease,” Craig said.

If it turns out Austen had been poisoned, it would have certainly been accidental, Craig said, since the author was well-loved.

“I assume it would be impossible to prove the cause of death without examining Jane Austen’s body, and that’s extremely unlikely to happen. She’s buried in the floor of Winchester Cathedral,” Craig said.

Deidre Shauna Lynch, a professor of literature at Harvard University, needs “to have more evidence that the spectacles the British Library is putting on exhibit actually belonged to Jane Austen (not to mention evidence that if they did they were actually prescribed for her as opposed to being bought off the shelf),” Lynch wrote in an email. She added that in letters to friends written in her final year, Austen mentioned her illness but did not mention weak eyes as one of her complaints.

“Austen was writing letters, in her usual quite tiny handwriting, up to May 1817, two months before her death. … For this reason it seems unlikely that she was as close to blind as the optometrist quoted on the British Library blog site suggests,” Lynch said.

Today, Austen is probably the best-remembered English writer of the 19th century, overtaking Dickens and the Bronte sisters, who 50 years ago would have had a higher profile than Austen, Lynch said.

“Jane Austen died much too young,” she said. “I think that her early death seems such a waste that admirers of the novels can’t help but try to explain it; obviously, for some people, the more dramatic the explanation the better.”