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Jane Austen poisoned with arsenic? Not so fast, experts say

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Three pairs of glasses were entrusted to the British Library by Jane Austen's family

Based on them, a London optometrist suggested Austen might have had cataracts caused by arsenic

CNN —  

Three antiquated pairs of spectacles displayed in the British Library are causing pulses to flutter clear across the globe.

Legendary author Jane Austen was poisoned with arsenic, proposed Sandra Tuppen, lead curator of Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1601-1850 at the British Library, in a blog post Thursday.

However, many scholars and medical experts say this theory is bunk, more crime fiction than plausible truth.

Questionable spectacles

Austen was born in 1775 and died in 1817. During her four decades of life, she wrote six major novels, including “Emma” and “Pride and Prejudice.” According to family lore, the three pairs of glasses on which the arsenic theory is based definitely belonged to their Jane.

Three pairs of spectacles found inside a portable writing desk that belonged to Jane Austen
British Library Board
Three pairs of spectacles found inside a portable writing desk that belonged to Jane Austen

“The glasses were entrusted to the care of the British Library by Austen’s great-great-great-niece in 1999, along with Austen’s treasured portable writing desk (in which they had been stored) and several other Austen artifacts, including an ink well and an embroidered glasses case,” Tuppen wrote in an email.

Although tests conducted by the library revealed that all three would be helpful for someone doing close work, such as writing, each pair is of different strength, one considerably more powerful than the others, she explained.

When consulted by the British Library, Simon Barnard, a London-based optometrist, suggested a number of theories to explain this variation in prescription strength, including using each pair for a different activity. For example, one pair might have helped her see while writing, another while she worked on embroidery.

Austen is known to have complained of weak eyesight. Over time, she may have needed glasses of increasing strength due to some underlying health problem, suggested Barnard, a visiting professor at Hadassah Academic College in Israel.

For example, diabetes can cause a sufferer’s eyesight to grow worse if it induces cataracts. However, diabetes was fatal in Austen’s time, so she would not have lived long enough to develop cataracts and require stronger glasses.

“Austen is known to have suffered from rheumatism,” or joint pain, Tuppen said. “In one of her final letters she writes of suffering from bilious attacks and a good deal of fever.”

Based on her health, Barnard hypothesized, a more likely cause of cataracts would be accidental poisoning. After all, some 19th-century English water supplies and medicines, which Austen might have taken, were contaminated with – cue the dramatic music – arsenic.

Did arsenic kill Austen?

According to Dr. Cheryl Kinney, a national board member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, many things contained arsenic during the author’s lifetime: “Water, the soil, homemade wine (which Jane Austen refers to in her letters), wallpaper, clothing that had green pigment, glue, and medicines (Fowler’s Solution would have been… the most widely advertised).

Portable writing desk that belonged to Jane Austen. Open book and spectacles.
British Library Board
Portable writing desk that belonged to Jane Austen. Open book and spectacles.

“And arsenic is a white powder – a careless chemist or apothecary could easily have mixed up one white powder for another. There are reports of that happening,” Kinney, a Dallas-based gynecologist, wrote in an email. “People would often take arsenic on their own as they were convinced that arsenic in controlled quantities could improve energy, make you plumper, and more vital. Pots and jars of skin creams also could contain arsenic.”

But the arsenic theory just doesn’t hold water, Kinney says.

“There are many other more likely causes of cataracts than arsenic poisoning,” she said. “Although some recent studies from Asia have shown a loose association of chronic arsenic poisoning in water with cataract formation, the studies only show association, not causation.”