Death, at least for the doctors and history buffs who gather each year at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is the coolest of puzzles, leading them to the coolest of theories. Could Abraham Lincoln have been saved? (Yes.) Was George Custer as much a victim of a personality disorder as the Indians he was fighting? (You betcha.) What turned Florence Nightingale into a recluse? (She might have been bipolar.)
They’ve been at it for 18 years, poring over autopsy records, consulting historical texts and lobbing questions at nationally recognized experts who fly in for an annual conference hosted by the school’s Medical Alumni Association that has turned into a melange of old gore, old guts and old glories. Death might scare you, but to Philip Mackowiak, the professor who dreamed up the conference, mulling human expiration — no matter how ancient — can be “a tremendous amount of fun.” These folks were House way before House was House, but unlike the riddle-solving television doctor, their preoccupation is with the dead rather than the living.
Mackowiak presides over his realm of medical intrigue in a grand, old, semi-circular lecture hall where the air is musty, as if you’d just entered an ancient wine cellar or, more appropriately, a crypt. Light trickles into Davidge Hall through the windowpanes that spread out in the shape of spider webs — they’re windows that Alfred Hitchcock would have loved. Sturdy metal kilns are set into the back wall of the 200-year-old hall. They were used for chemical experiments, a conference organizer assures me, not for the cadavers that were once examined in the “anatomical hall” on the upper floor.
Mackowiak has a bucket list of historical figures whose deaths interest him. He’d love to dig into the medical history of Spanish painter Francisco de Goya: “According to his biography, he was deaf as a stump,” Mackowiak says. Or maybe Buddha or Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
But the subject in question on this day, it turns out, was a headbanger. Heavy metal may have played a role in his death. Parts of his brain had the texture of this: rock.
The dead dude, sadly, couldn’t be with them. He’s kept under glass in Moscow’s Red Square. But the vital data about his waxing then waning vitality were there in the lecture hall for all to see.
Vladimir Lenin, the long-gone Bolshevik revolutionary and Soviet leader, was born with short, weak legs and a giant head, these medical-history detectives learned. As a child, he had a habit of banging his head on the floor when he was upset, making his mother think that he might be developmentally disabled, according to the historical data.