Archive for Tuesday, January 7, 1992

MEDICAL HISTORY SLEUTH

January 7, 1992

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— A Kansas University Medical Center professor has joined the ranks of researchers seeking to determine what caused Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh's medical woes.

In a recently published article in The British Medical Journal, Wilfred N. Arnold, professor of biochemistry, puts forth a new theory.

Arnold and co-author Dr. Loretta S. Loftus, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, point the finger at "acute intermittent porphyria," an hereditary metabolic disorder marked by gastrointestinal pain and mental disturbances, both of which affected van Gogh.

Arnold said his interest in van Gogh, who lived from 1853 to 1890 and who is best known for his paintings "Starry Night" and "Sunflowers," began about four years ago.

WHILE STUDYING the history of medicine, Arnold said, he became intrigued by a 19th century French physician, Dr. Paul Gachet. While researching Gachet, Arnold became "sidetracked by his most famous patient, van Gogh."

In in a November 1988 article for the Journal of the American Medical Assn., Arnold explored how diet affected the famous painter, who was known to fast and to have an affinity for a strong liqueur called absinthe, which is made from the essential oil of wormwood.

Attraction to non-nutritional and harmful foodstuffs is called a `pica,' Arnold explained, and "van Gogh's pica was for terpenes." Terpenes are chemicals in such substances as turpentine and camphor; they are found in many essential plant oils.

Arnold said there also was evidence that van Gogh frequently used "a massive amount of camphor on his pillow at night" and that he "nibbled" on his paints, which were thinned with turpentine.

IN THEIR article, Arnold and Loftus said van Gogh's illness was exacerbated by overwork, malnutrition, fasting, environmental exposures, alcohol and the proclivity for terpenes.

The two said there also was evidence that members of van Gogh's family suffered the same malady. They report that van Gogh's brother Theodorus experienced "serious nervous afflictions," leg pains, paralysis and renal failure, that his younger sister, Willemina, spent half of her life in a psychiatric asylum and that another brother, Cornelis, committed suicide at age 23.

Arnold said he thought the disorder probably was inherited from the siblings' father, the Rev. Theodorus van Gogh, based on available family health history.

Arnold calls acute intermittent porphyria a "unifying hypothesis" with respect to the painter. Considering van Gogh's alcoholic binges, malnutrition and mental crises, he said, "all of these things kind of add up.

"THE LEFT EAR incident could be explained by the onset of a crisis. And the suicide may have been primarily provoked by fear of another crisis."

Other medical hypotheses that have been presented for van Gogh's behavior since his death include manic depression, schizophrenia, glaucoma, an inner-ear disorder and a brain tumor.

Arnold, whose office is adorned by van Gogh prints, said he found it interesting that many artists believe van Gogh's work was influenced by his illness.

He called the man a "creative genius who did great work in spite of illness, not because of illness."

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