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Franz Schubert, Syphilis and Mercury Poisoning

Franz SchubertTwo centuries ago, Franz Schubert composed music that today is among the most frequently performed music by classical orchestras, piano soloists, singers and choruses.  Although he died before his 32nd birthday, he wrote more than a thousand original compositions including 600 choral works, seven symphonies, 50 sonatas, nearly 100 choral compositions, 17 operas and operettas, six masses, 25 other religious works and more than 600 songs.  During his lifetime he was largely unrecognized and lived in poverty, appreciated only by his Viennese friends and having very few of his monumental classical works published.  
 
Although his cause of death was listed as typhus, he probably died from the mercury that doctors gave him to treat syphilis, which was as prevalent then as it is today (J R Soc Med 1997;90:291-292).  After his death, his works became famous through the advocacy of Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms and other great 19th-century composers. 
 
A Life in Music 
Schubert was born in a small town near Vienna to a father who was a musically-inclined schoolteacher.  His father taught him how to play the violin, his brother taught him how to play the piano and a local choirmaster taught him how to read and write music. He was prepared to follow his father and become a teacher, but by age 11, he was already composing songs and piano music. He had the incredible luck to be taught music by the Italian composer, Antonio Salieri, who also taught Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Liszt.  In 1814 at age 17, Schubert wrote "Gretchen am Spinnrade,"  a song inspired by Goethe's Faust, which was so well received by the public that he decided to quit his plans to become a schoolteacher and write music instead.   Unlike Mozart and Beethoven, he was unable to secure an appointment in music from the nobility so he spent his short life in relative poverty, even though friends did recognize his genius and organized small concerts in private homes. 
 
He was short, tubby and nearsighted, with a prominent nose and thick glasses; his friends nicknamed him "Little Mushroom."  He was a difficult sell to the music-loving Viennese public because he was uncomfortable around people and could not communicate well with those who came to listen to his concerts.  He spent most of his time working on his music, and wrote, "I have come into the world for no purpose but to compose." 
 

Syphilis and Death from its Treatment with Mercury 
Schubert was known to visit prostitutes and they gave him syphilis.  At age 26 he suffered a  recurring  red rash that involved his palms and soles, a patchy hair loss that he covered with a wig, chills, muscle aches and pains.  He was admitted to Vienna General Hospital and was most likely treated with mercury and felt better.  However, I do not believe that mercury ever cured syphilis and he spent the rest of his life suffering from dizziness, headaches, fever, swollen joints, and vomiting, which can all be caused both by syphilis and by the mercury that he was given by his doctors.  Other symptoms include mood swings, memory loss, mental disturbances, muscle weakness, blindness, tingling in the hands and feet, lack of coordination, slurred speech and deafness.
 
For the last few months of his life, he vomited up most of his food that he ate.  Ten days before he died, he tried to eat supper and with a look of disgust,  placed his knife and fork on the plate and did not accept food or drink ever again.  On his final day, he  screamed intermittently and then died.  Schubert's death certificate gave the cause of death as "typhus abdominalis," but this makes no sense.  Doctors at that time made that diagnosis for just about everyone who had fever, weakness and vomiting.  That diagnosis at that time was just another way for a doctor to say that he didn't have the foggiest idea why the patient died.  Most likely he died of mercury poisoning that can damage the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system in the same way that syphilis does.  
 

Now a Curable Disease
Today syphilis can be cured with antibiotics, but if it is left untreated, it can kill you.  It is divided into four stages:
• Primary syphilis:  When you first get syphilis, you may have no symptoms at all or you can develop a small painless ulcer, usually on your genitals or mouth, and usually within three weeks of exposure.  You are highly contagious at this point. The ulcer usually lasts 3-6 weeks and then goes away with no treatment whatever.  Sometimes it leaves a scar.
• Secondary syphilis: Two to 12 weeks after the skin ulcer develops, you can develop a rash that usually involves the palms and soles of the feet, and ulcers on the genitals or mouth or genitals.  At this stage you are still highly contagious   The  rash usually heals in about two months without treatment or scarring, but you may have different colored skin where the rash was and you are still contagious.  Sometimes you also develop a fever, sore throat, weakness, weight loss, patchy hair loss in your eyebrows, eyelashes, and scalp, swollen lymph nodes, neck stiffness, headaches, irritability, and possibly paralysis.
• Latent (hidden) syphilis: If you are not treated, the symptoms usually go away, although you can develop intermittent fever, rash and swollen lymph nodes.  The disease is not as contagious at this stage.  
• Late (tertiary) syphilis: One to 20 years or more after the original infection, the germ can damage your heart, blood vessels, and nerves anywhere in your body to cause blindness, mental problems, heart attacks, broken blood vessels and death.
                        
Today syphilis can be acquired through any sexual contact and can cause all of the symptoms described above and eventually kill you.  Since it is a curable disease, everyone should get a routine blood test with their yearly physical called RPR. If it is positive, you can be treated and cured.
 

January 31, 1797 – November 19, 1828) 
September 17th, 2017
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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