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Cancer and the arts: how often do doctors only see what they want to see? Or: the case of an 'epidemic of breast cancer among famous artists'
  1. Wolfgang Wagner
  1. Austria Press Agency (APA), Vienna, Austria
  1. Correspondence to Wolfgang Wagner; Wolfgang.Wagner{at}

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It is always tempting to probe the unknown. And as we only know the present, most of our mysteries belong to the past and, quite naturally, to the future. No wonder that some pathologists or specialists in forensic medicine undertake quite some efforts to clarify the course of disease or the cause of death of famous people of the past.

No doubt, Julius Caesar was simply murdered as Brutus and his friends stabbed him at the Ides of March 44 BC. Ample evidence has been given by contemporaries and being hit by daggers 23 times means ‘ill fate’ by crime.

It is more difficult with disease. Henry VIII suffered from gout which was well known and well diagnosed at the time. Only a few years ago Ludwig van Beethoven's death was (finally?) attributed to lead poisoning by wine and often used drugs in 1827, unless it is mentioned that an autopsy of his corpse clearly showed liver cirrhosis as an underlying disease.

It is much more difficult with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who died at 35 in 1791. Pharyngitis, rheumatic fever; it is clear that he had not been of good health during his lifetime. But with all of the attempts to find the 'smoking gun', there is no final proof. We have been left behind with Mozart's Ave Verum and his Requiem which somehow might have more significance today than knowing why the genius of all genius musicians died.

The portrayal of ladies

Oncologists might have the worst chances to look into history: cancer, as we have known for a some years, is composed of numerous entities. Subclassification by genomics has shown that carcinomas of different organs do share specific molecular characteristics which can be hit by targeted drugs.

Nevertheless, there is also a desire to know the unknown in oncology. 'When a physician casts his professional eye to examine individuals portrayed by various artists, sometimes weird "diagnostic conclusions" are formulated and published’, the Polish specialist in forensic medicine Adam Gross wrote in a letter to the editor of ‘Breast Cancer Research and Treatment' in 2004.1

A maxillofacial surgeon had ascribed the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa to an 'alleged past injury of her upper jaw and teeth, while an anaesthesiologist regarded the wound in the neck of a nymph portrayed by Piero di Cosimo as the first illustration of tracheotomy’, Gross (Cracow) stated.

As the renowned specialist of forensic medicine wrote, the same might be true of ‘La Fornarina’ by Raphael (model: Margherita Luti), the left breast of Rembrandt's Bathsheba (model: Rembrandt's wife Hendrickje Stoeffels) and one of the ‘Three Graces’ by Rubens (model: Rubens' second wife Hélène Fourment).

Gross did not engage in oncological discussions. He simply tried to find out about the fate of the three beautiful women, honoured by their partners' paintings who have become immortal by their achievements in art.

Margherita Luti was alive at least up to 2 years after La Fornarina had been painted. Raphael died and she moved to a home of solitary women with no further records.

Hendrickje Stoeffels lived for more than 9 years after Rembrandt had her painted and died in 1663. ‘She continued enjoying quite good health’, Gross wrote.

Finally, the case of the presumed breast cancer victim Hélène Fourment. She died in 1673, outliving the artist and the painting (showing breast cancer?) by more than 30 years.

Gross' sober judgement: 'Seen from this viewpoint, the survival time of these three women with "neoplastic disease" living in the 16th and 17th centuries rules out the validity of such "medical diagnosis" based on the analysis of their portraits'.

The Polish specialist himself did some outstanding work in forensic investigations concerning history. In 2008, he and his team got a chance to examine the body of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Prime Minister of Poland who was in exile; he had been killed in an air crash in Gibraltar in 1943. The remains of his corpse were exhumed from the grave in the cathedral of the Royal Castle on Wawel Hill in Cracow.

A British investigation into the tragedy had clearly concluded that it had been an accident. But there were constant rumours of an assassination. Gross’ verdict: numerous fractures that had incurred intravitally—no mysteries left.

Caesar was stabbed for sure, Sikorski was killed in an airplane accident. Maybe we should stick to undeniable facts. There is a saying by the German writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe: ‘You only see what you already know and understand'. This is true. But sometimes we overrate our knowledge. And this should make everybody sceptical about conclusions drawn too easily.


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  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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