Almost 200 different physical and mental illnesses as well as several methods of murder have been proposed as the cause of the Austrian composer’s death at the age of 35 in 1791. And, as noted in a British Medical Journal article last December, those hypotheses tend to say more about the people proposing them than about what actually killed Mozart.
A prominent fungi specialist, for example, attributed the death to mycotoxin poisoning; a cardiologist, to endocarditis; and a rheumatologist, to Behcet’s syndrome. (I’m assuming those who suggested murder, including the playwrights Alexander Pushkin and Peter Shafer, had no special expertise in that topic, just vivid imaginations.)
Now along comes two vitamin D researchers — at least one with ties to organizations supported by the supplement and tanning-bed industries — who claim that Mozart’s untimely death can be attributed to, you guessed it, not enough vitamin D in his bloodstream.
I had to smile when I read about that claim in a DiscoveryNews article published Monday. Vitamin D is, after all, the nutrient du jour — the one that proponents declare can lower your risk for everything from the common cold to colon cancer.
It was only a matter of time, therefore, before somebody linked Mozart’s death to it.
Mozart was a night owl
The vitamin D hypothesis was made in a letter published recently in the journal Medical Problems of Performing Artists by William B. Grant, a retired NASA atmospheric physicist, and Stefan Pilz, an endocrinologist at the Medical University of Graz. Grant is somewhat well known in alternative medicine circles as a vitamin D enthusiast. He founded the Sunlight, Nutrition, and Health Research Center (SUNARC) in 2004 and has worked with two industry-backed nonprofits, the Vitamin D Council (which promotes vitamin D supplements) and the UV Foundation (which advocates for indoor tanning, among other things).
The letter was in response to an earlier article in that journal, written by William Dawson, a retired orthopedic surgeon and past president of the Performing Arts Medicine Association, which reviewed all the conflicting reports of Mozart’s illnesses and death that have been written between 1798 and 2008.
“Overlooked in any of the papers hypothesizing about [Mozart’s] death was a discussion of the likely role of very low [blood levels of vitamin D] in contributing to his untimely death,” write Grant and Pilz in their letter. “… Mozart did much of his composing at night, so would have slept during much of the day. At the latitude of Vienna, 48° N, it is impossible to make vitamin D from solar ultraviolet-B irradiance for about 6 months of the year. Mozart died on December 5, 1791, two to three months into the vitamin D winter. … Many of the … diseases that were common causes of death of that period in Vienna, including tuberculosis, cancer, diabetes mellitus, heart failure, cerebrovascular events, pneumonia, and other infectious diseases, have low serum [vitamin D levels] as an important risk factor.”
In other words, Grant and Pilz seem to be saying, the immediate cause of Mozart’s death is immaterial. Its real cause was vitamin D deficiency.
“Almost every disease has a vitamin D connection these days,” Grant told DiscoveryNews reporter Emily Sohn. “I think modern-day musicians are unaware of the fact that by staying indoors, they are not getting the adequate amount of vitamin D that they need.”
Musicians, don’t panic. As the Institute of Medicine made clear last fall, most of us don’t need to worry too much about whether we’re getting enough vitamin D. Last year, a 14-member panel of IOM experts reviewed more than 1,000 published studies on vitamin D and took testimony from numerous scientists and others.
The panel did triple the recommended daily intake of vitamin D for most Americans from 200 IUs to 600 IUs, but they also stressed that most of us get plenty of the vitamin through our diet and our brief exposures to sunlight (yes, even in northern latitudes).
They also concluded that the only proven health claim for vitamin D is that it promotes good bone health.
Best candidate: a common infection
Despite all the wild hypotheses made through the centuries about Mozart’s death, most historians seem to believe that the great composer probably died from a common infectious illness, such as influenza or typhoid fever.
It could be that the doctors treating Mozart also unwittingly contributed to his death. That’s what Dawson believes. “They bled Mozart a lot as one of the treatments for his disease,” he told Sohn. “I think they bled him too much and he died of acute blood loss.”
And if that’s the case, then Mozart’s vitamin D blood levels would have definitely been too low.