Hemochromatosis: The Celtic Curse that Killed Hemingway

The Writer and His Shotgun

Ernest Hemingway was a swashbuckling, globetrotting, Nobel prize-winning author who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 61.  While many factors likely contributed to his suicide (repeated head injury, his own father’s suicide, broken marriages, alcoholism), an insidious disease known as hemochromatosis is thought to have also played a role.

Hemochromatosis–also known as “The Celtic Curse”–is a genetic condition in which the body cannot rid itself of excess iron.  As a result, the iron ingested in food accumulates in vital organs such as the liver and heart.  In its late stages, hemochromatosis can cause terrifying mental and emotional disturbances such as depression, angry outbursts and psychosis.  Not everyone who has the disease will develop symptoms; those who do often don’t experience them until later in life.  Strangely, men are more likely to develop symptoms of the disorder than are women.

For all the mysteries surrounding Hemingway’s death, we know this:  he was diagnosed with hemochromatosis at the Mayo Clinic in early 1961.  His father also suffered from the disease and developed eerily similar mental problems shortly before his death.  In his final  years, Hemingway was tormented by a total inability to write creatively.  His brother and sister also committed suicide, as did his granddaughter Margaux–sister of actress Mariel Hemingway.  In 2013, Mariel starred in a documentary called “Running From Crazy” in which she examines the unfortunate history of mental illness in her family.

Did the Celtic Curse also claim the lives of Ernest Hemingway’s kin?  Might it play a role in other cases of familial suicide?  While there’s no evidence to support the idea, it’s possible that singer Kurt Cobain might have suffered from hemochromatosis.  In addition to his suicide at age 27, Kurt had multiple uncles and grandfathers who killed themselves violently.  He suffered from undiagnosed stomach pain all his life (as did his mother), which is a common symptom of hemochromatosis.  Cobain was of English and Irish descent, putting him at greater risk for the condition than people of other ethnicities.

One thing is certain:  until psychiatry starts acknowledging alternative causes of depression beyond the “neurochemical imbalance” theory, we’ll keep missing opportunities to treat people.  All the Prozac in the world won’t save someone whose brain is overloaded with a toxic metal.

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