Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning (6 March 1806 – 29 June 1861) was one of the most prominent English poets of the Victorian era, popular in Britain and the United States during her lifetime. She became ill at 15 and remained so for the rest of her life. It is speculated that her illness was what we know today as myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), polio, or hypokalemic periodic paralysis.

Illness onset[edit | edit source]

Browning's illness began after two events – an infectious illness and a spinal injury she sustained while saddling her pony – when she was fourteen years old. Both of her sisters also became ill at around the same time, but recovered. Young hypothesizes the three sisters had non-paralytic poliomyelitis, an enterovirus. Browning's doctor advised vigorous exercise.[1]

It began with pain in the head, which continued at intervals for seven weeks -the pain then attacked various parts of the body, for a considerable period, and for the last month it has permanently seated itself on the right side, that is about the centre of the angle formed by the greatest projection of the ribs, the umbilicus and the anterior superior spinous process of the ischium [? ilium]. The pain commences here, is carried to the corresponding region of the back, up the side to the point of the right shoulder and down the arm. The suffering is agony-the paroxysms continue from a quarter of an hour upwards-accompanied by convulsive twitches of the muscles, in which the diaphragm is particularly concerned.

Presentation of illness[edit | edit source]

Young describes Browning: "though moderately active, she repeatedly complained of fatigue, especially after slightly greater exertion than usual, and resented others not appreciating how exhausted she claimed to be. In fact, after too much exertion or if agitated or upset, she would collapse or even faint." She also suffered from tachychardia and repeated, chronic infections.[1] Other symptoms included dilated pupils, hyperesthesia of the skin of her back, temporary difficulty with micturition, and weakness of a leg.[2]

Theories[edit | edit source]

  • J. G. Weir (1989) argues that Browning's first illness was "certainly an encephalomyelitis of one kind or another", possibly poliomyelitis or measles encephalitis, as she had a documented case of measles.[2]
  • Buchanan (2011) hypothesizes she had a rare disease called hypokalemic periodic paralysis (HKPP)[3]
  • Shepherd (2008) suggests her symptoms are consistent with ME/CFS.[4]

Learn more[edit | edit source]

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Young, DAB (February 18, 1989). "The illnesses of Elizabeth Barrett Browning" (PDF). British Medical Journal. 298.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Weir, J.G. (March 18, 1989), "The illnesses of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.", BMJ : British Medical Journal, 298 (6675): 749, PMID 2496832, retrieved November 14, 2016
  3. Buchanan, Anne (September 2011). "Of sad and wished-for years: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's lifelong illness". Perspectives in Biology and Medicine.
  4. Shepherd, Charles (December 5, 2008). "The History of ME/CFS in Different Parts of the World". Living With M.E. Random House. pp. 11–16. ISBN 978-1-4090-2095-0.