Let's Play 'Famous Person Death Mystery,' Jane Austen Edition

Image via Getty.
Image via Getty.

Everyone gather round and let’s play that perennial favorite parlor game, What Killed This Famous Dead Person? Today, we’ll do Jane Austen!


There’s been debate about the 41-year-old author’s cause of death for years. Theories over the years include tuberculosis caught from cows; Addison’s disease; and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The New York Times kicks off the latest debate, asking: “A Possible Clue in Jane Austen’s Glasses. Did Arsenic Kill Her?” Well, did it? Let’s hear the evidence, which comes via the British Library and does not involve murder:

Researchers at the library, working with the London optometrist Simon Barnard, recently examined three pairs of glasses believed to have belonged to Austen, and said that they show evidence that her vision severely deteriorated in her final years.

That kind of deterioration further suggests cataracts, and cataracts may indicate arsenic poisoning, Sandra Tuppen, a curator of archives and manuscripts at the library, wrote in a blog post on the library’s website on Thursday.

“If Austen did develop cataracts,” as the glasses indicate, Dr. Tuppen wrote, one likely cause is “accidental poisoning from a heavy metal such as arsenic.”

Always with the arsenic.

Unfortunately, here comes the BUZZKILL BRIGADE over at LiveScience. They spoke to surgeon Dr. Mark Blecher, the co-director of cataract and primary eye care at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, who called it “100 percent pure speculation.” Go on...

There are a number of other conditions that can cause cataracts in younger people — genetic predispositions, trauma to the eye, diabetes and certain genetic conditions with enzyme deficiencies — and chronic arsenic poisoning is much farther down the list, he told Live Science.

“In some areas of the world, where there is arsenic in the drinking water, there is higher incidence of cataracts,” Blecher said. “Arsenic is found in the lens of the eye more than in any other part of the eye, so it does seem to concentrate there. The presumption — and it is a presumption — is that it is causative for higher incidence of cataract.”

Moreover, the majority of cataracts don’t cause prescription changes. When they do, they usually increase the need for “minus” prescription glasses (to see far away), Blecher said, but it’s unclear whether Austen went from a low prescription to a high prescription, or vice versa, he said.

An Austen expert at UT Austin, Janine Barchas, also told the New York Times that the conclusion was a “quantum leap.”

We’ll reconvene sometime in the next 18 months to discuss dramatic new findings regarding Mozart, or—God forbid—Amelia Earhart.

Senior Editor at Jezebel, specializing in books, royals, romance novels, houses, history, and the stories we tell about domesticity and femininity. Resident Windsor expert.



Have they positively ruled out “consumption”? Because when it comes to pre-20th century young women dying outside of childbirth, that’s, like 100% of the cases. Or has pop culture been lying to me all these years?