Thursday, July 9, 2009

Jack London's Cause of Death

Jack London [1876-1916], the canonical American author of such well-known works as The Call of the Wild, The Sea Wolf, and many others, died on November 22, 1916. Only forty at the time of his demise, the cause of his death was officially ascribed to "uraemia following renal colic." Two physicians at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine explore this assessment in a recent article, Jack London's "Chronic Interstitial Nephritis": A Historical Differential Diagnosis, published in the UNC Medical Bulletin (Spring 2009, pp. 18-21).*

Drs. Andrew S. Bomback and Philip J. Klemmer draw on London's own writings and other historical sources to argue that mercury toxicity is likely to have been the real culprit. London documents in The Cruise of the Snark, the chronicle of his 1907-8 South Pacific voyage, that he treated himself with corrosive sublimate, or mercuric chloride, for a possible case of yaws. He had also treated himself earlier with mercury for gonorrhea, and Bomback and Klemmer conclude in a fascinating analysis that the long-term effects of these remedies best explain many of the symptoms that London experienced--and ultimately, the failure of his kidneys.

The cottage pictured above is located on a ranch near Glen Allen, California, where London lived for a number years, and died in 1916. It is now part of the Jack London State Historic Park.

* Recent (and some early) issues of the UNC Medical Bulletin are now available online.

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