Divining death: Did dermatological conditions contribute to Mary Shelley’s fatal stroke?


By Natasha Doyle

3 May 2022

Diagnosing illness can be challenging in a living, face-to-face patient, but paleopathologists have dug through papers and history to help Frankenstein the cause of Mary Shelley’s death. 

For nearly two centuries, clinicians and researchers have sought to define her medical conditions through symptoms, appearance, biographies and letters, so that her cause of death, once assumed (without autopsy) to be a long-standing brain tumour in the left hemisphere has since been dubbed a stroke.

Now, researchers with affiliations in Australia, Europe and the US are going a step further and claiming that her neurological and cerebrovascular issues were influenced by childhood dermatological conditions — potentially eczema, psoriasis or chicken pox. 

“The celebrated author of the famed novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) had recurrent episodes of hemiplegic migraine characterised by unilateral weakness, intermittent aphasia, hemiparesis, convulsive seizures; these symptoms lasted for 12 years, a time frame which led scholars to dismiss the diagnosis of brain tumour,” the researchers wrote in Acta Biomedica.

However, with her remains buried in St Peter’s Churchyard, Bournemouth, England, and a lack of artistic evidence to supplement the written, little has been done to trace the cause of the stroke. 

A review of Mary Shelley’s pathobiography “revealed a dermatological illness that she had developed aged fourteen”.

Treated with poultices, the “extremely painful condition involving one entire arm”, was thought to be eczema, psoriasis or chickenpox — all of which — can “produce long-term cephalagic outcomes”, the authors wrote. 

“In the case of herpes zoster, the adult-age manifestation of chickenpox, headache is known to be a complication of its ophthalmic or encephalitic presentations,” they noted, though her single-arm instead of whole-body rash involvement precludes confirmation of the condition.

The alternatives “are known to cause inflammatory statuses which end up playing a pivotal role in other bodily districts, for example, affecting cardiovascular health through atherosclerotic or thrombotic events”.

“Based on the available historical documentation and current medical knowledge, we propose that the writer’s final cerebrovascular events originated from a dermatological condition – psoriasis, eczema or herpes zoster – she had already developed during her adolescence,” they concluded.

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