Vladimir Lenin died of syphilis

What did Vladimir Ulyanov die of?

That's a typical question for the Historical Clinopathological Conference (HCPC) that meets every year at the Baltimore Medical School. There are two competing hypotheses about Lenin's death: stroke and poisoning.

In 1924 Lenin suffered a loss of speech at the age of 53, he could only utter a few words - "vot, vot", "here, here" - then his right half of the body was paralyzed, he also suffered from cramps and died on January 21st. What is not known, the list of candidates ranges from syphilis to heart attack or stroke to poisoning from the lead of bullets that he had in his body after an attempted murder. And what did he really die of?

That's a typical question for the Historical Clinopathological Conference (HCPC), which meets annually at the Baltimore Medical School and ponders the causes of deaths of historical celebrities to loosen up. The tradition was opened 19 years ago by the epidemiologist Philip Mackowiak, who sends out anonymous medical reports before the conference, the participants then bring their diagnoses with them.


POE: alcohol or rabies?

The first conference was about a son of Baltimore, Edgar Allen Poe. The public suspected that he had drunk himself to death in 1849. But Poe's doctor disagreed, he went to the United States as a lecturer, reported on his patient's symptoms and ruled out alcohol, but did not name the cause of death. One of the conference attendees studied these reports and diagnosed rabies. Mackowiak also went deeper and contradicted - “there is a tendency to let extraordinary people die extraordinary deaths” - but he came up with alcohol.

That could be ruled out with this year's candidate: Lenin did not drink, did not smoke and did not have high blood pressure. But he was under constant stress - mainly because of his rival Stalin - and he probably had risk genes; his father had died of a stroke at the age of 54. Both could have led to Lenin's coronary arteries becoming so calcified after his death that they sounded like stone when touched with tweezers. That's why Harry Vinters (UC Los Angeles) diagnosed at the conference: stroke.

But Lenin also had symptoms that didn't go with it, especially the convulsions. Therefore, a second remote diagnostician typed. Lev Lurie, historian in St. Petersburg, on something completely different: poison or Stalin (Science, 336, p.796). The power struggle had escalated since 1922, and almost any poison causes convulsions in its victim.

("Die Presse", print edition, 07/07/2012)