Ways to die: Bright’s Disease

Bright’s Disease, something YOU will hopefully never be diagnosed with, because if you are, well, you’re going to a quack! Or you’ve stepped into a time machine, whichever.

Even when it was first described and elucidated, Bright’s Disease was a fairly vague diagnosis. It could be could be acute or chronic, fatal or just annoying, but always had to do with the kidneys. The symptoms that Bright described as characteristic of this condition were not unique to one disease, or even one internal problem. The kidneys could be inflamed, degenerating, non-functional, or even hemorrhaging outside of the urinary tract, but so long as notable levels of protein (albumin) were in the urine, patent medicine companies and alkali or vegetable “cure” quacks were all right there waiting for you to want a solution.

That said, Richard Bright did a good deal when it came to being observant and putting forth theories and methods regarding dropsy (edema), and was correct about kidney disease causing edema of the legs and around the eyes. He also produced some of the best and most detailed illustrations of diseased and normal kidney tissues that were available before Gray - and even Gray didn’t have better illustrations of diseased tissues.

Symptoms of Bright’s Disease:

  • Serious back pain
  • High blood pressure
  • Severe or mild edema
  • "Phantom testicular agony" (?)
  • fever
  • vomiting
  • Any or all of the above, so long as it’s in conjunction with cloudy, smoky, or bloody urine, with high albumin levels

Diseases that often fell under the net of Bright’s Disease

  • General Nephritis (kidney inflammation), all forms, including pyelonephritis, which is an acute kidney infection that can quickly lead to kidney failure if not treated with antibiotics
  • Chronic Kidney Disease, either primary or secondary
  • Glomerulonephritis (inflammation of the filtering membrane within the kidney) was common, occasionally glomerulosclerosis (hardening of the filtering membrane tissue) is also thought to have been the primary cause of a diagnosis of Bright’s disease - much less common than glomerulonephritis
  • Polycystic Kidneys
  • Systemic Lupus leading to Lupus Nephritis
  • Diabetic Nephritis 
  • Many other less common maladies that we now know are not just one disease…

Famous victims of Bright’s Disease

Though we now have some idea of what a few of these people died of, thanks to medical records and the reports of relatives of their symptoms, many people are recorded to have simply died of “Bright’s Disease”. Here are a few people that suffered from it, though not all perished due to the condition:

  • Chester A. Arthur, 21st president of the United States
  • Alexander III of Russia
  • John Bunny, vaudeville and silent film actor
  • Ty Cobb, Baseball Hall-of-Famer
  • James Creelman, very sketchy Canadian journalist…major player in the yellow journalism going on in the early 20th century
  • Emily Dickenson
  • Gregor Mendel
  • Aldo Leopold
  • H. P. Lovecraft (developed and died from “Bright’s Disease” while dealing with intestinal cancer)
  • Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt, first wife of President Theodore Roosevelt
  • Ellen Wilson, first wife of President Woodrow Wilson
  • Bram Stoker (developed it, suffered one stroke, had it intensify, had another stroke, died soon after)

Sources: Medline Plus, Science and Practice of Medicine in the Nineteenth Century, W. F. Bynum, 1994, Wikipedia (I know, I know, but I wanted to know who’s died from it)

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    My grandfather died from that diagnosis. Then again that was in the mid 1930’s. I suppose that’s where technology was at...
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