What killed Liz?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a Victorian poet who is famous for her poetry, her love letters, and the love and marriage that she shared with the poet Robert Browning. Her poetic fame preceded meeting Browning and some say that the quality of her writing declined under the influence of their relationship, but their love is certainly one that has captured the imagination of people across the centuries. Throughout her life though, Elizabeth Barrett suffered an illness that defied the medical practitioners of her time. Now however, a new analysis has shined light on the malady afflicted this prodigious talent.

Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett was born on 6 March 1806 in Coxhoe Hall, between the villages of Coxhoe and Kelloe in Durham County, England. Her parents Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett and Mary Graham Clarke had twelve children, Elizabeth was the eldest of their eight boys and four girls.

At about age thirteen or fifteen Elizabeth began to battle with a lifelong illness, which the medical science of the time was unable to diagnose. All three sisters came down with the syndrome although it persisted only with Elizabeth. She had intense head and spinal pain with loss of mobility. There was also regular incapacitating weakness, heart palpitations, an intense response to heat or cold, and bouts of general exhaustion that lasted from days to years.

We know these symptoms in detail because the poetess recorded them in her letters. The doctors of her time had no answers for her distressing and debilitating illness. All they could do was prescribe Laudanum (containing opium) and then morphine for the pain. Elizabeth became dependent on these drugs for much of her adulthood and some suggest that this may have contributed to the vividness of her imagination and the poetry it produced. She died in Rome in 1861 in her husband’s arms and he reported that her last word was “beautiful”.

Although her illness plagued her life it remained of unknown cause. Now however, a Pennsylvania State University researcher may have unravelled the mystery.

The researcher noted that the symptoms experienced by Elizabeth matched a condition called hypokalemic periodic paralysis (HKPP), a muscle disorder that causes blood levels of potassium to fall because potassium becomes trapped in muscle cells. A common trigger for HKPP episodes is the secretion of insulin which can be caused by alcohol intake, hunger, table salt, excessive heat or cold, sudden temperature change, illness, and exercise. In her diary Elizabeth reported that he condition could be brought on by eating honey, which would cause insulin release. She also wrote that running down hill caused the problem on one occasion and on another it was getting rained on. A day of religious fasting also prompted an episode of illness. Damp winters in England also precipitated her symptoms but her condition improved somewhat when she left England for Italy after meeting Robert Browning.

It certainly seems that Elizabeth had all the signs of being a sufferer of HKPP. Unfortunately for her, the condition was first described in 1874, thirteen years after her death. Today intravenous potassium can prevent or stop an attack but there is still no cure for the disorder.

No-one would wish illness on anyone, however the story of Elizabeth’s life does beg the question of whether her illness was integral to her life persona and her art. Such a question cannot be answered and all that remains is to revel in the poetry that she left behind which is beautiful.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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