News FocusRetrodiagnoses

Investigating the Ills Of Long-Dead Celebrities

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Science  06 Jul 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6090, pp. 30-31
DOI: 10.1126/science.337.6090.30

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The murky circumstances of Vladimir Lenin's death have made it popular among medical history sleuths. The most recent group to take it on was the 19th annual Historical Clinicopathological Conference (HCPC) in May. The HCPC examines cases of historical celebrities who suffered from mysterious ailments, such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Christopher Columbus, and King Herod. Diagnosing ancient emperors and explorers may seem an eccentric pursuit for doctors—the "patients" have long since died—but the HCPC is hardly alone. The quest to retrodiagnose dead celebrities has proved irresistible to doctors for over a century—although some historians wish that doctors would stop trying to revise history and let the dead rest in peace. Some also dismiss the work as unilluminating and note that DNA testing of the dead can cause distress among living descendents.