'Real Detective Work' Leads to Theory on Goya's Mystery Illness

The Spanish painter was profoundly ill for months but went on to live a long life
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted May 1, 2017 10:26 AM CDT
Expert Offers Diagnosis for Painter Goya's Mystery Illness
Goya's severe, undiagnosed illness struck at age 46. All but his hearing recovered, and he lived to be 82.   (Courtesy of University of Maryland School of Medicine)

In 1793, when acclaimed Spanish painter Francisco Goya was 46, he was bedridden for months with a mysterious illness that brought on headaches, dizziness, hallucinations, and even vision and hearing problems. He eventually recovered and went on to live just past his 82nd birthday, but the illness took his hearing for good, reports Live Science. With no doctors' notes and only a description of symptoms, experts have long puzzled over the historic case—though syphilis, bacterial meningitis, and lead poisoning (not exactly uncommon among painters at the time) have long been considered plausible. Now a leading hearing expert at the University of Maryland School of Medical says Goya may have suffered from a rare autoimmune disease called Susac's syndrome.

In Susac's, one's immune system attacks blood cells in the brain, inner ear, and retina, and can lead to loss of vision and hearing and even psychiatric issues. The painter exhibited this "constellation of symptoms," says Dr. Ronna Hertzano. "This required real detective work," she says. "The question of Goya’s ailment was a fascinating medical mystery." Still, while syphilis and meningitis are less likely because they tend to be progressive and lead to other complications, she warned ahead of her presentation at the Historical Clinicopathological Conference that "the best we can do is speculate." The annual meeting features an expert (if armchair) diagnosis of historical figures that have in the past included Vladimir Lenin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Hertzano noted that today Goya would have been able to restore his hearing with cochlear implants. (Here's what killed Beethoven.)

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