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What Killed Naval Hero John Paul Jones? An Historical Diagnosis Reveals the Answer

Friday, May 01, 2009

John Paul Jones
 John Paul Jones

University of Maryland School of Medicine and the VA Maryland Health Care System Sponsor Conference to Examine the Father of the American Navy

John Paul Jones, born as John Paul in Scotland in 1747, is linked to the United States Navy's earliest traditions of heroism and victory. He first went to sea at age 13, became a captain at 21 and was a spectacularly successful officer during the American Revolution. Despite his naval prowess, Jones, the man who became the "Father of the U.S. Navy," experienced recurring health problems, beginning at age 26.

John Paul Jones is the subject of this year’s Historical Clinicopathological Conference (CPC), sponsored by the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs (VA) Maryland Health Care System in Baltimore. This conference is devoted to the modern medical diagnosis of disorders that affected prominent historical figures.

During the conference, naval historian Lori Lyn Bogle, Ph.D., associate professor of history at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, will trace Jones’ successes and failures. Jones died in 1792, at age 45.

Medical history and autopsy

“What is fascinating is that after he died, Jones’ body was stored in an alcohol-like substance. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Paris, and remarkably, the body was found,” says CPC presenter, Matthew R. Weir, M.D., who is responsible for analyzing what likely caused Jones to die. Dr. Weir is a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and head of nephrology at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Dr. Weir says Jones’ preservation made it possible for an autopsy to be performed 113 years after Jones died.

Dr. Weir reviewed Jones’ medical records and the 1905 autopsy report. In 1792, officials said Jones died of “dropsy of the chest,” old medical terminology that may have referred to the accumulation of fluids in the lungs.

Early medical descriptions of Jones refer to severe, cyclical fever, and psychological highs and lows. At 33, he was almost blind, complaining of sore eyes. In one record, Jones told his doctor he felt like an old man. Jones traveled frequently to the West Indies. Dr. Weir says, “All of these fever-related illnesses could have been connected to anything from malaria or dengue fever, to bacteria or viruses. You name it, he had a lot going on as a young man.” The naval lifestyle may have contributed to his health problems: poor diet, cramped quarters, poor hygiene onboard ship and/or venereal disease.

By 1789, four years before his death, Jones was in rapid decline. “Poor health led him to turn down most social invitations. He had a poor appetite, yellowing of the skin, swelling of the legs and abdomen, a persistent cough and difficulty breathing,” says Dr. Weir.

Medical examiners at the autopsy concluded that Jones died from a type of kidney disease called interstitial nephritis, which is the description of a non-specific, inflammatory process in the kidneys. They also noted scarring in the lungs from pneumonia.

Final diagnosis

Dr. Weir considered a number of possibilities including infections, lead poisoning, autoimmune disorders, and tuberculosis. He then focused on common streptococcal (strep) infections, which can cause both pulmonary and kidney disease. Further, Dr. Weir says a different type of end-stage kidney disease, called glomerulonephritis, is more common than the interstitial variety. Dr. Weir’s final diagnosis: “John Paul Jones developed end-stage kidney failure as a result of viral or bacterial infection, which stimulated the development of a form of progressive glomerulonephritis. The interstitial nephritis was the end result of this progressive disease.  He also had pneumonia, an incidental finding not likely related to his kidney disease.” 

The achievements of John Paul Jones

While John Paul Jones is honored today for his numerous accomplishments, Dr. Bogle says he was not well accepted by other officers of his time because of his exaggerated sense of personal honor, over-the-top aggressiveness and what some said was a poor leadership style. “His need for fame and personal honor, not unusual for officers of his day, drove him to see his men as a means to achieve his personal goal,” says Dr. Bogle.

The high point for Jones during the Revolution was his victory over the HMS Serapis in 1779, which British admiral Horatio Nelson claimed was the greatest naval feat in history. Jones was praised in both Europe and the United States for his seamanship, dogged courage and determination. In 1781, the Continental Congress voted to give him “the thanks of the United States.” After the war, the Navy ceased to exist when Congress in 1785 auctioned off its last warship and sent home all its officers and men.

Jones, ever seeking to improve his craft, served briefly in Russia as an officer in the imperial fleet of Catherine the Great. He was known as a womanizer and left Russia in the wake of an apparently trumped-up rape charge by Russian officers and traveled to Paris, hoping without success to secure another naval commission.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s role

Dr. Bogle says the recognition that John Paul Jones had sought his entire life finally came to fruition in the early 20th century. The first step took place in 1900 when Augustus C. Buell, an engineer turned historian, wrote a two-volume biography titled John Paul Jones: Founder of the American Navy. “Buell referred to letters he had fabricated that would portray Jones with qualities that officers of the day would have tried to emulate. Buell later claimed he couldn’t remember his sources,” says Dr. Bogle.

The next step in creating Jones as father of the U.S. Navy, according to Dr. Bogle, was the discovery of Jones’ body in an abandoned Parisian cemetery. The find came just about the time that President Theodore Roosevelt was looking for a way to garner support for converting the U.S. Navy from a defense-only fleet to an offensive armada. Roosevelt, a naval historian, had previously dismissed Jones as a corsair, an officer who raided commerce. “Enshrining Jones as Father of the Navy provided the president with a useful means to convey the importance of the navy to America’s new extended responsibilities,” says Dr. Bogle.

As a result, the body of John Paul Jones was brought to the United States amid much fanfare, his remains were placed under the chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy where they repose today and the nation celebrated its new sea power mission.

“We believe these conferences are excellent teaching tools. They help give students a sense of history, show how medical science has evolved over the years and foster an appreciation for good patient diagnosis,” says E. Albert Reece, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., vice president for medical affairs, University of Maryland, and dean, University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The Historical CPC is the brainchild of Philip A. Mackowiak, M.D., professor and vice chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of medical care at the VA Maryland Health Care System.

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