Jane Austen's mystery death - was she poisoned by arsenic?

Author Jane Austen
Author Jane Austen

It is possible that British author Jane Austen - writer of novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility - developed cataracts and died because of arsenic poisoning, researchers at The British Library have said.

July marks the 200th anniversary of Austen's death and so the cause of her passing, at the early age of 41, is a current hot topic as well as a continued mystery.

Austen has many documented complaints about her eyesight near her death. Poor eyesight is one of the side effects of prolonged exposure to arsenic.

The Rice Portait of Jane Austen by British painter Ozias Humphry (1742-1810) Credit: STAN HONDA

Sandra Tuppen, the lead curator for modern archives and manuscripts at the Library, spoke about the Library's examination of three pairs of spectacles, locked away in Austen's desk since her death.

When the author died in 1817, her sister Cassandra inherited her portable writing desk. The family kept the desk until 1999, when they placed it in the care of The British Library.

According to Tuppen, the spectacles - one wire-rimmed and two tortoiseshell - were tested, revealing that they are all convex and would have been used by someone who needed them for close-up tasks such as reading and writing. 

Austen is known to have complained in letters about her "weak" eyes. When the test results were shown to a London-based optometrist, Simon Barnard, he suggested that Austen gradually needed stronger glasses because of a "serious underlying health problem".

Cateracts occur when the lens of the eye becomes cloudy and less flexible. The condition could have been brought on by diabetes, although few lived even to 41 with that disease at the time. But it's not known whether Austen actually had cataracts - she may have used the three sets of spectacles for different activities.

A more likely cause would have been accidental poisoning from a heavy metal such as arsenic, Barnard said.

"Arsenic poisoning is now known to cause cataracts. Despite its toxicity, arsenic was commonly found in medicines in 19th-century England, as well as in some water supplies," Tuppen said.

The poisonous effects of arsenic, a crystalline metalloid found in the Earth's crust, are linked an array of health problems, including cancers of the skin, lung, bladder, kidney and liver.

 

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