Like everything else about Jane Austen, her death continues to fascinate us. Literary scholars and Janeites still wonder about the illness that plagued the author for more than a year before she died at the age of 41 in July, 1817. It was during this time that she finished Persuasion, the saddest and most pensive of her novels.
In 1964, Dr. Zachary Cope proposed that Addison’s disease, a rare disorder in which the adrenal glands don’t produce enough hormones, killed the famous author. Her symptoms included extreme fatigue and weakness, faintness, back pain, nausea, and pain in the joints. To Cope, though, a vital clue was skin discoloration. “Recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour,” Austen wrote in March 1817. Addison’s disease can make the skin look bronze or mottled. (Reporters often wondered why U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who had Addison’s Disease, had a perpetual “tan.”)
In 1997, Austen biographer Claire Tomalin begged to differ, and thought Austen’s symptoms suggested lymphoma.
Katherine White, the coordinator for the Addison’s Disease Self-Help Group’s clinical advisory group in the United Kingdom, thinks something much more common killed Jane: bovine tuberculosis, probably from drinking unpasteurized milk. In a paper she wrote for the Medical Humanities journal, White (who is a social scientist, not a medical professional), argues that while Austen could have had Addison’s Disease, tuberculosis seems a more likely cause of her final illness and death.