BALTIMORE – Roman Emperor Claudius had a variety of neurological and physical ailments that led to his nickname as “the emperor with the shaking head,” but researchers said Friday it was probably a poisoned mushroom that killed him.
The record isn’t complete enough to know for sure, but it suggests that Claudius was likely poisoned by his wife in the year 54 A.D., said Dr. William Valente, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
The diagnosis was part of the seventh annual historical clinicopathological conference sponsored by the School of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs Maryland Health Care System in Baltimore.
Valente was in charge of examining the case of a “64-year-old man with postprandial abdominal pain and vomiting.”
He examined many possible causes of death, including Claudius’ age of 64 and his various ailments: The emperor had a weight problem, severe heartburn and severe stammering and stuttering. He also tended to drool and foam at the mouth, had an inappropriately maniacal laugh and a penchant for vomiting.
Historian Richard Talbert said the historical record seems to suggest that Claudius was given a poisonous mushroom by his fourth wife, Agrippina, to guarantee that her son Nero would take the throne. But Talbert noted that “poison was the standard answer” for why leaders died then.
Valente concluded that Claudius ultimately died because of “de una uxore nimia” — one too many wives.
The conference is the brainchild of Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak, professor at the School of Medicine and director of medical care at the Veterans Affairs Maryland Health Care System. It aims to educate students, faculty and staff by bringing the arts and sciences together.
He said the conference, a mainstay at almost all medical schools, is one of his favorites, but he wanted to come up with a way to liven it up for everyone.
“I’ve always enjoyed history a great deal,” Mackowiak said. “I thought it would be interesting for the students and faculty to combine the two (arts and medicine).”
No other school uses famous historical figures for their case studies, he said, focusing instead on contemporary cases.
This year’s figure, Claudius, served as Roman emperor from the murder of his nephew Caligula in January 41 A.D. to his own apparent murder in October 54 A.D., when his stepson Nero took the throne.
Claudius was not as famous as past case studies, which have included Mozart, Beethoven and Edgar Allan Poe. Speakers at the conference said that those who recognize the emperor’s name probably remember the 1976 PBS series “I, Claudius” or the Robert Graves novels upon which it was based.
Claudius himself, played by Columbia free-lance actor Reid Sasser, made an appearance for a brief question-and-answer session at the conference and then went off to expire.
“It was marvelous,” said Dr. David Oldach, a professor at the university and a former conference participant. “It was great to drop the myopic view of medicine and learn a little about history too.”
Medical school student Laura Ferris of Baltimore also had a good time.
“It was interesting to see them try to diagnose him by reconstructing the historical accounts,” she said. “It was like trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle.”
A free luncheon was held after the conference. Among the sandwiches served — mushroom.