Diagnosis Revealed at University of Maryland School of Medicine and VA Maryland Health Care System Conference
He discovered treasures of ancient Troy and became known as the father of modern archaeology, all while suffering from excruciating ear pain, debilitating headaches, and progressive hearing loss. Heinrich Schliemann died in 1890 after undergoing one of the most advanced ear surgeries of the day, but the exact cause of his death has remained as elusive as the mysteries he explored in life. Now, more than 110 years later, his death is the focus of this year's popular historical clinicopathological conference (CPC) sponsored by the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs (VA) Maryland Health Care System in Baltimore.
The 2004 historical CPC will be held Friday, April 30, from 1:30 to 3:00, in Davidge Hall (522 W. Lombard Street), the oldest medical school building used continuously for medical education. More than 300 faculty members, students, and alumni are expected to attend the CPC, which is part of the 129th Medical Alumni Association Reunion.
"After studying personal letters and records chronicling his medical and surgical care, I believe that Schliemann died of a brain abscess caused by a bacterial infection contracted during surgery," says Hinrich Staecker, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and surgeon at the VA Maryland Health Care System. Dr. Staecker, who specializes in hearing loss, will reveal previously unknown facts that led him to this conclusion.
"Because I speak several languages, I was able to study the medical records and original correspondence between Schliemann and his wife," explains Dr. Staecker. "The descriptions to Mrs. Schliemann of his condition and medical care, and the fact that files had obviously been removed from Schliemann's medical records, were the strongest clues about the cause of his death."
Schliemann's past medical history included tuberculosis as a child and influenza, yellow fever, and malaria as an adult. At age 54, he noted a marked increase in his ear pain, progressive hearing loss, and burning headaches. Despite this, Schliemann continued with the excavations and his desire to become famous.
He was "energetic, intelligent, observant, rich, and pushy," according to scholar and historian Donald F. Easton, Ph.D., from London, who took part in the new excavations at Troy in the 1990s. "Also physically fit, Schliemann was particularly fond of swimming. Even on the coldest days and with ear pain, he would ride his horse to the nearest body of water to swim." At the CPC, Dr. Easton, who was awarded the Schliemann Medal of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, will be adding historical perspective to Schliemann's achievements.
In November 1890, when his earaches and hearing loss had finally become intolerable, 68-year-old Schliemann underwent a newly developed surgical procedure to treat the infection in his left ear that had spread to the mastoid bone of the skull.
His surgeon, German ear specialist Professor Hermann Schwartze, and others, declared the operation a success. About a month later, however, while on business in Paris, Schliemann was struck by new pain and complete deafness in his left ear. From Paris, he went to Naples where he suddenly collapsed on Christmas Day. Although conscious, he was unable to speak and by the next day began to exhibit signs of gradual right-sided paralysis. Surgeons opened his ear and reported that, "the trouble had attacked the brain." Schliemann died later that day.
"Another cause of this terrible infection could have been tuberculosis of the bone," says Dr. Staecker. "You rarely see skeletal tuberculosis any longer because of effective drug therapy, but in Schliemann's day it was fairly common. The skull is a common site of skeletal TB so it had to be ruled out."
Investigating a famous case study and accurately determining the cause of death is the attraction of the historical CPC, according to Philip A. Mackowiak, M.D., director of the medical care clinical center at the VA Maryland Health Care System and vice chair of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The historical CPC is the brainchild of Dr. Mackowiak who transformed this academic exercise by focusing on historical figures whose illnesses and deaths have not been satisfactorily explained.
"Schliemann redefined archeology in the late 1800s," says Dr. Mackowiak. "Our annual historical CPC does the same with medical education. The historical CPC places today's medicine in proper perspective by reminding us of how we have arrived at our current state of sophistication."
Past historical CPCs have explored the deaths of such notables as Edgar Alan Poe, Alexander the Great, Mozart, King Herod, and Florence Nightingale.
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