Known for her poetry, letters, love affair, and marriage to Robert Browning,
Elizabeth Barrett Browning also left a legacy of unanswered questions about her
life-long chronic illness. Now, a Penn
anthropologist, with the aid of her daughter, may have unraveled the mystery.
Born in 1806, Barrett Browning suffered throughout her life from
incapacitating weakness, heart palpitations, intense response to heat and cold,
intense response to illnesses as mild as a cold, and general exhaustion in
bouts that lasted from days to months or years. Her doctors were unable to
diagnose or treat her illness, which apparently first appeared around age 13.
“Conjectures by modern biographers about Barrett Browning’s condition
include anorexia nervosa, neurasthenia; tuberculosis; pertussis, an
encephalomyelitis; non-paralytic poliomyelitis; paralytic scoliosis, or the
lifetime effects of injuries to her spine from falling from her horse in early
adolescence; opium addiction; and mental illness, including anxiety and agoraphobia,”
Anne Buchanan, research associate in anthropology, reports in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine.
Some even attribute her illness to defense against the inferior status and
treatment of Victorian women, or simply to malingering.
Ellen Buchanan Weiss, Buchanan’s daughter, noted the symptoms recorded in
Barrett Browning’s letters because the symptoms seemed so similar to those that
she experienced. Buchanan Weiss has hypokalemic periodic paralysis (HKPP), a
muscle disorder that causes blood levels of potassium to fall because potassium
becomes trapped in muscle cells. The disorder was first described in 1874 in
German and then in 1901 in English. Barrett Browning died in 1861, long before
physicians would have any idea of HKPP.
Today, oral or intravenous potassium can prevent or stop an attack, but
there is no cure for the disorder, which may be genetic, either inherited or
caused by a sporadic mutation. According to Buchanan, there is slight evidence
of an uncle in Barrett Browning’s family who may have suffered the same
symptoms. While Elizabeth and Robert did have a son, he apparently had no
offspring so there are no living descendants.
A variety of triggers can initiate weakness for people with a periodic
paralysis, says Buchanan. Common triggers for people with HKPP include anything
that increases secretion of insulin—alcohol, hunger, or high carbohydrate foods—table
salt, excessive heat or cold, sudden temperature change, illness, sleep,
exercise or some medications. Symptoms of HKPP generally first appear at
Barrett Browning’s first bout occurred after a minor illness, which was
followed by measles. Her health continued to decline, and although physicians
were unable to diagnose her malady, one prescribed opium to which she became
addicted for life. This illness lasted for more than a year and at times she
was so weak she could not sit upright without support.
Barrett Browning writes in the diary that she kept during her 25th year of
other triggers for her ailment. She notes becoming weak after eating a generous
portion of honey, a substance that would increase insulin production. She
reports an episode that followed an outing where she ran down a hill, was
rained upon and thoroughly soaked.
Throughout her life, she suffered terribly during the cold damp winters in England, especially in London,
and only found some relief after marrying Robert Browning and escaping to the
warmer, milder climate of Italy.
Other incidents in her life that she recorded include suffering terribly
after a day of religious fasting. Hunger is a strong HKPP trigger. Her letters
to Browning, her 25th year diary and other letters to friends and relatives
describe not only the symptoms of her disease, which mirror those of HKPP
suffers and Buchanan Weiss specifically, but also a list of triggers that are
now known to be specific triggers for HKPP.
After two years of declining health, Barrett Browning died on June 29, 1861,
in Browning’s arms.
Buchanan notes that “many others have read these same descriptions,
looking for clues to her illness, but my daughter’s experience with HKPP has
given us a perhaps unique lens through which to view them.”