Doctors Gather in Baltimore to Solve an Old Medical Mystery

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The patient’s cerebral arteries were “so calcified that when tapped with tweezers they sounded like stone,” Dr. Victoria Giffi informed her audience. He’d died suddenly at age 53 after suffering a massive stroke — but the doctors in attendance weren’t entirely convinced by this seemingly simple explanation. The patient also happened to be involved in some pretty risky political activities; could he have been murdered? Inherited a mysterious disease? Died of complications from an earlier assassination attempt?

The biggest complicating factor, though, was that the patient in question was Lenin — yes, Vladimir Ilyich himself — and that his possibly mysterious death took place over half a century ago. But that didn’t pose much of a problem for the doctors in attendance at the University of Maryland’s annual clinicopathology conference, who’ve made retrospective diagnoses of people much longer dead:  Beethoven, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Alexander the Great.

The case began with a review of Lenin’s medical history. As the New York Times reports, “As a baby, Lenin had a head so large that he often fell over. He used to bang his head on the floor, making his mother worry that he might be mentally disabled.” By the time he was an adult, he suffered intermittently from typhoid, toothaches, influenza, erysipelas (a skin infection), stress, insomnia, migraines, and abdominal pain. At his time of death, there were two bullets still lodged in his body from an earlier assassination attempt. In the years leading up to the stroke that ultimately killed him, Lenin suffered three similar attacks. At the time, doctors variously blamed nervous exhaustion, lead poison from those pesky bullets, and syphilis, among other things. But his heart was fine, and he had several positive health indicators:  he didn’t have high blood pressure, exercised regularly, didn’t smoke.

So what precipitated the stroke? The answer, according to the doctors, is a doozy:

“Communist Russia in the early 1920s, Dr. Lurie told the conference, was a place of ‘Mafia-like intrigue.’ ” Though Lenin’s stroke probably came about because of extremely high cholesterol levels, they also suggest that poison — presumably administered by Stalin — was the immediate cause. Of course, we’ll never know for sure, since no toxicology tests were done on Lenin’s tissue (at the behest of a mysterious order). And the clinicopathologists have been wrong before (a few years ago they recanted their claim that Poe had died of rabies). But a political poisoning has a sort of romantic intrigue to it that just sounds a lot better than stress-induced high cholesterol; I think I’ll take their word on this one.

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