John Keats was an English Romantic poet. His work was not particularly well received during his lifetime, but became immensely popular after his death. It is well known that Keats died from consumption in Rome in 1821. However, some controversy remains about the medical treatment he received shortly before his death. This essay discusses the treatment Keats received, whether it was appropriate, and whether it actually hastened his death.
In 1820, Keats started exhibiting increasingly severe tuberculosis symptoms. However, when he moved to Rome that same year, Dr James Clark diagnosed him with mental fatigue and claimed that Keats’ writing brought on his symptoms. Clark suggested that Keats may have had some disease in his heart and lungs, but maintained that if Keats rested his mind, he would recover. Eventually, Clark did diagnose tuberculosis in Keats. However, he promptly put Keats on a starvation diet to starve the illness in his stomach. After Keats started vomiting blood, Clark decided to bleed him in an effort to cure him. In addition to these treatments, Clark denied Keats any painkillers to ease his suffering.
Sadly, the starvation and bleeding only worsened Keats’ symptoms. He would have been weak and confused from lack of sustenance, and indeed, this was confirmed by Joseph Severn who nursed him before he died. In a letter to a friend, Severn wrote about how Keats raved, and how he was so weak that he asked Severn to lift him into a sitting position. Keats’ weakness would also have been exacerbated by the blood loss from the bleeding. However cruel as this treatment appears, Clark was simply following the accepted protocol of his profession. However, Clark’s refusal to give Keats any painkillers is a mystery, as it was fairly common to give consumption patients laudanum to ease their pain.
The starvation and bleeding may have hastened Keats death somewhat, but it is impossible to know the extent of that hastening. In addition, tuberculosis was still untreatable at the time of Keats’ death, so it would have killed him regardless of the treatment he received. Nevertheless, Keats did die with more pain and suffering than was necessary. The starvation, bleeding, and lack of pain relief would have left him in severe physical and mental distress.
The medical treatment Keats received seems bizarre by today’s standards, but it was the typical treatment of the times. Sadly, Keats would have died from tuberculosis regardless of the treatment he received. However, his death certainly could have been less agonizing had Clark administered different treatments, or at the very least given Keats some pain relief.
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