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BBC, 9 March 2017

This week, the BBC covered a story about Jane Austen; based on tests conducted on the spectacles she owned, it is said she possibly died of arsenic poisoning.

Experts at the British Library have said that arsenic, which was commonly used in medicines at the time may have contributed to her death following examination of three pairs of glasses found at her desk.

Daniel Hardiman-McCartney, Clinical Adviser at the College of Optometrists, gives his opinion, “We now know that Austen’s spectacle strength increased from +1.75 to +4.75 and +5.0 in each eye, a significant increase in her prescription. In order to consider other options, it would be very helpful to know what age she was when she wore each pair, but looking to reports on her writing we can glean some information”.

“There were reports of reoccurring conjunctivitis in her early twenties that could be linked to her health problems and possible cataracts, partially with a condition such as Addison’s disease, which has also been considered an explanation for her illness.  Arsenic is an interesting explanation, but there are other more commonly occurring possible conditions that could account for changing spectacle strength. Retrospective diagnosis are speculative and should always be open to debate”.

We have listed a range of possible eye sight problems that Austen may have had, listed from most to least common:

  • Latent hypermetropia. It is possible Jane Austen was simply long-sighted, this is a common eye condition and unrelated to her other health problems.
  • Combination of presbyopia and hypermetropia. This could be further investigated if we knew her age when she wore each pair of glasses.
  • Other medical causes of hypermetropia (long-sightedness) such as orbital tumour, although this usually occurs in those in their 60s or 70s, or posterior scleritis, which occurs at the back of the eye and is rare and difficult to diagnose.
  • Addison Disease. This fits with other general health problems and could explain the reoccurring conjunctivitis as blepharitis or episcleritis.  These problems along with cataracts are all associated with the condition.
  • This can be associated with both anterior uvetitis and cataracts and was not discovered until 1877, well after Austen’s death and is a rare condition.
  • Early onset, fast growing cataracts, caused by Arsenic treatment.

As Austen herself wrote in Persuasion, “Time will explain”.

March 10, 2017