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Was it typhoid? Crohn’s? 156-year-old mystery surrounds Prince Albert’s death

Dec 14, 2017

 

156 years ago this day, a husband died.

His grieving wife wore black from that day until her own death 40 years later.

That is the story of Britain's Queen Victoria and her husband, the Prince Consort Albert.

University of Michigan medical historian and PBS contributor Dr. Howard Markel joined Stateside to answer questions that remain surrounding Albert's illness.

 

Listen above for the full conversation, or catch highlights below.

 

On clues that he might have been misdiagnosed

 

“For decades, the thought was he died of typhoid fever, and he may well have died of typhoid fever. Doctors have parsed the incubation time, the illness, and so on and so forth, and it does not seem unlikely. But then there was this notion, well the Prince couldn't possibly have drunk tainted water, and typhoid fever is salmonella. It's a GI infection, a gastrointestinal infection from eating food or water that is tainted with that microbe.”

 

“He had one of the world's experts on typhoid fever, a man named William Jenner, who diagnosed typhoid and saw the rash — the classic rose-colored rash of typhoid fever — about eight days into his illness. Now, here's the interesting thing: when doctors are experts in a particular thing, they tend to see that particular thing all the time. You have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. You have a typhoid expert, everything looks like typhoid.”

 

“He could have had Crohn's disease, or ulcerative colitis, or some kind of malignancy of the GI tract. His mother died of stomach cancer, for example.”

 

On his treatment

 

“This is a common theme in medicine well into the 1950s and '60s in America, as well as in England and other places in the world, that the patient was not told about his or her illness because they might not be able to bear it. Now, imagine not telling somebody what they had and the ethical quandary that puts the physician or the nurses or the other caregivers in. And this was pro forma—this was the way it was done.”

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