Paul L. Wolf, MD from the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, in a recently published article (Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine: Vol. 129, No. 11, pp. 1457-1464. November 2005) takes us on a journey of retrograde analysis of medical conditions and self-induced medicinal ingestion that afflicted some of the most talented artists ever (Benvenuto Cellini, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Ivar Arosenius, Edvard Munch, van Gogh, and Berlioz). His conclusion: these talents could have been diagnosed and treated by today’s methods, but the intervention may have dimmed or extinguished the “spark”. No surprises here.
Below is an example of the analysis that Dr. Wolf uses to illustrate his historical perspective. His review of van Gogh’s madness:
The color yellow fascinated the Dutch postimpressionist painter, Vincent van Gogh, in the last years of his life. His house was entirely yellow. He wrote How Beautiful Yellow Is, and all of his paintings in these years were dominated by yellow. Van Gogh’s preference for the color yellow may have been that he simply liked the color. However, 2 speculations exist that his yellow vision was caused by overmedication with digitalis or excessive ingestion of the liqueur absinthe. The drink contains the chemical thujone. Distilled from plants such as wormwood, thujone poisons the nervous system. The chemistry of the effect of digitalis and thujone resulting in yellow vision has been identified. It also should be noted, prior to the discussion of van Gogh’s yellow vision, that many clinicians have reviewed the medical and psychiatric problems of the painter posthumously, diagnosing him with a range of disorders, including epilepsy, schizophrenia, digitalis and absinthe poisoning, manic-depressive psychosis, acute intermittent porphyria, and Ménière disease. Psychiatrist Kay R. Jamison, PhD, believes that van Gogh’s symptoms, the natural course of his illness, and his family psychiatric history strongly indicate manic-depressive illness. It is also possible that he suffered from both epilepsy and manic-depressive illness. If lithium carbonate had been available in the 19th century, it might have helped Van Gogh…
In 1785, William Withering observed that objects appeared yellow or green when foxglove was given therapeutically in large and repeated doses. Since 1925, various physicians, including Jackson, Sprague, and White, quoting Cushny, professor of pharmacology at the University of Edinburgh, have noted that patients overmedicated with digitalis develop yellow vision. According to Cushny, “All colors may be shaded with yellow or rings of light may be present.”
It has been established that van Gogh suffered from epilepsy, for which he was treated with digitalis, as was often the case in the late 19th century. Barton and Castle stated that Parkinson recommended a trial use of digitalis in epileptics. Digitalis may have been used to relieve his epilepsy. Physicians are more likely to consider a diagnosis of digoxin toxicity if a history of xanthopsia (yellow vision) is elicited, this being the symptom best known to physicians…
Another possible explanation for van Gogh’s xanthopsia was his excessive ingestion of absinthe. Van Gogh’s taste for absinthe (a liqueur) may have also influenced his style of painting. The drink’s effect comes from the chemical thujone. Distilled from plants such as wormwood, thujone poisons the nervous system. Van Gogh had a pica (or hunger) for unnatural “foods,” craving the entire class of fragrant but dangerous chemicals called terpenes, including thujone. As van Gogh recovered from cutting off his ear, he wrote to his brother: “I fight this insomnia with a very, very strong dose of camphor in my pillow and mattress, and if ever you can’t sleep, I recommend this to you.” Camphor is a terpene known to cause convulsions in animals when inhaled. Van Gogh had at least 4 such fits in his last 18 months of life.
Van Gogh’s friend and fellow artist Paul Signac described an evening in 1889 when he had to restrain the painter from drinking turpentine. The solvent contains a terpene distilled from the sap of pines and firs. Van Gogh tried more than once to eat his paints, which contained terpenes as well. Signac also wrote that van Gogh, returning after spending the whole day in the torrid heat, would take his seat on the terrace of a cafe, with the absinthe and brandies following each other in quick succession. Toulouse-Lautrec drank absinthe from a hollowed walking stick. Degas immortalized absinthe in his bleary-eyed painting, Absinthe Drinker. Van Gogh nursed a disturbed mind on the aquamarine liqueur, which may have encouraged him to amputate his ear.
Read more as Cellini, Michelangelo, Munch et al. had their own complicated sets of issues.
Have a nice weekend! See you on Monday. Don’t forget to check the Medical Weblog Awards Nominees and the Literary MedBlog Showcase.