The Mysterious Illness of Robert Burns

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On the 21st of July Robert Burns, the national bard of Scotland, died at the young age of 37. In a world where famine and disease frequently wreaked its havoc, early death was often common. However, for those who lived past the diseases of childhood, long life was a definite possibility. So, even in the eighteenth century, Burns’s death seemed premature and tragic. But what did Robert Burns die of? This is a question that has puzzled Burns scholars for many years and is often asked by our visitors. Yet, upon looking at the history, Robert Burns’s medical problems seem to be complex, with a range of symptoms and complaints.

Collection of Robert Burns's many medicine bottles at the museum.
Collection of Robert Burns’s many medicine bottles at the museum.

One major influence on his health throughout his life was his struggle with mental health.
For example, as a young man living in Irvine, Burns suffered a terrible breakdown. Described as hypochondria at the time, he suffered from what we would now describe as a serious case of depression and anxiety. This depression would return to him periodically when he had financial struggles, problems with his love life, or when he found himself in difficulties due to his politics. At these times, he was often incapacitated by his depression. For example, in December 1789 he wrote to his friend, Mrs Dunlop, saying that ‘For now near three weeks, I have been so ill with a nervous headache, that I have been obliged for a time to give up my exercise books, being scare able to lift my head.’ Certainly, his tendency to succumb to depression didn’t help him as physical symptoms appeared in his 30s as he stated that, ‘‘My Physician assures me that melancholy and low spirits are half my disease.’

Photographic copy of silhouette of Burns - Kilmarnock 1787
Photographic copy of silhouette of Burns – Kilmarnock 1787

It therefore seems that depression was a contributor to his death, but as we get into the mid 1790s, it is quite clear that Burns is suffering from serious physical complaints. In 1795 he complained of ‘the rigid fibre and stiffening joints of old age coming fast o’er my frame’ and although he was only 35, he seemed to have begun to feel like an old man. This progressed into the year with him complaining about toothache and weakness, saying at one point that he felt barely able to lift his pen. On some days it appears he struggled to get out of bed, while between December 1795 and 1796, the death of his 4 year old daughter gave him rheumatic fever. He seemed to recover in the spring of 96, but a remark in his letter to his friend Thomson perhaps shows that the end was near: ‘Rheumatism, Cold and Fever, have formed, to me, a terrible Trinity in Unity, which makes me close my eyes in misery and open them without hope.’ Certainly, as spring turned to summer, those who saw him said he looked ‘consumptive’ and like he was ‘already touching the brink of eternity.’

In July, a last ditch attempt of a cure was sought and Burns was advised to travel out to the Solway Firth and immerse himself in the water. However this did not seem to work as he wrote letters saying that he was incredibly weak, with no appetite, and barely able to stand. On returning to Dumfries, his friend John Syme recorded him as being emaciated and shaken and that death seemed certain. And only a few days later it was over – Robert Burns was dead.

Piece of the coffin of Burns.
Piece of the coffin of Burns.

So what was this mysterious illness? Modern doctors looking at these accounts seem to think that Robert Burns died of a heart condition Endocaritis and believe that the sea-bathing ‘cure’ recommended to him probably hastened his death.

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