What kind of Arthritis Did Christopher Columbus Have?

Historians find food poisoning causes Columbus’ arthritis, not gout

ColumbusFor years, history books reported that Christopher Columbus suffered from gout. That diagnosis was assigned to various types of arthritis during the Middle Ages, including Rheumatoid Arthritis. It was a catch-all term for recurring joint pain or any inflammatory arthritis.

However, in recent years, evidence has revealed better explanations for Columbus’ illness, disability, and early death. Medical clinicians and expert historians have worked together through the annual Historical Clinicopathological Conference to solve medical mysteries involving Edgar Allan Poe, Alexander the Great, Mozart, Florence Nightingale, and others. Because of their research about Columbus, the books will have to be re-written.

During his first journey to the Americas, Christopher Columbus seemed to have been infected with a virus. Most historians agree that Columbus’ arthritis likely began with a case of food poisoning. Instead of recovering, Columbus suffered strange and painful symptoms which only caused his health to deteriorate.

Queer symptoms of Columbus’ illness

Columbus’ eyes were so painfully inflamed that they actually bled. People were horrified. Although his contemporaries called his joint pain “gout,” that was extremely unlikely because he did not drink alcohol or eat a rich diet. (It’s ironic that it was bad food and not good food which sickened him.) He has also been misjudged for his urinary-related symptoms.

It was not until the nineteenth century that the 3 common symptoms of Reiter’s syndrome were clearly identified: conjunctivitis (eye inflammation), urethritis (urinary tract inflammation), and painful arthritis. The illness was not called Reiter’s syndrome until the twentieth century after Hans Reiter, who also tied the onset of the inflammatory disease to food poisoning. (Yes, there are other causes.) Today, Reiter’s is usually called Reactive Arthritis.

The accomplishments of a disabled man

Columbus was forty-one when he returned to Europe from his first voyage unwell. He died only 13 years later at the young age of fifty-four.  Columbus’ spine became fused and he suffered from constant fevers. He was frequently incapacitated and eventually lost the ability to write his precious journals due to arthritis in his hands.

Yet, Columbus made three more crossings of the Atlantic during those years. He persevered to pilot and navigate the Atlantic through storms, mutinies, and enormous perils. Columbus also wrote, created maps, and raised two remarkable sons. He never yielded to the horrors of his chronic illness. During his last voyage home, Columbus was completely immobilized.

Columbus’ “happy ending”

Christopher Columbus suffered a great deal physically and persevered through setbacks and injustice. When his last voyage seemed to him to have been a failure, Columbus wrote to his son that “he had done his best and if what he had tried had been beyond his knowledge and strength, ‘Our Lord in such cases asketh not more of men than good will’” (quote from page 307, World of Columbus, Genevieve Foster, Beautiful Feet Books). He was content in knowing that God is near to those who suffer.

Historians now acknowledge that Columbus probably died of heart disease associated with the inflammatory disease, Reactive Arthritis. As with Rheumatoid Arthritis, inflammatory autoimmune diseases can damage many organs or systems of the body, including the heart, and result in an earlier death.

More on Columbus’ arthritis:

Part 1: Columbus Day and World Arthritis Day: Is There a Connection?

Christopher Columbus, Part 3: How Does Reactive Arthritis Compare to Rheumatoid Arthritis?

More Columbus arthritis details from the experts:

University of Maryland report on historical clinicopathological conference
University of Texas interview with Dr. Arnett, rheumatologist & Columbus expert

Recommended reading:

Kelly Young

Kelly Young is an advocate providing ways for patients to be better informed and have a greater voice in their healthcare. She is the president of the Rheumatoid Patient Foundation. Kelly received national acknowledgement with the 2011 WebMD Health Hero award. Through her writing, speaking, and use of social media, she is building a more accurate awareness of Rheumatoid disease aka Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) geared toward the public and medical community; creating ways to empower patients to advocate for improved diagnosis and treatment; and bringing recognition and visibility to the Rheumatoid patient journey. In 2009, Kelly created Rheumatoid Arthritis Warrior, a comprehensive website about RA of about 950 pages and writes periodically for other newsletters and websites. Kelly served on the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media Advisory Board. There are over 42,000 connections of her highly interactive Facebook Fan page. She created the hashtag: #rheum. Kelly is the mother of five, a home-schooler, Bible teacher, NASA enthusiast, and NFL fan. You can also connect with Kelly by on Twitter or YouTube, or LinkedIn. She has lived over nine years with unrelenting Rheumatoid disease. See also http://www.rawarrior.com/kelly-young-press/

One thought on “What kind of Arthritis Did Christopher Columbus Have?

  • October 13, 2009 at 11:45 am

    Wow!!! How amazing. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. That is amazing and so neat that go back and solve the medical mysteries of famous people. Thank you again!


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