Saturday, May 13, 2006

Science Saturday V: It Wasn't Peanut Poisoning

A cloud has long hung over the death of Booker T. Washington. At the time of his death in 1915, a doctor wrote that the great African-American educator had died of "racial characteristics," code words for syphillis.

It now appears that high blood pressure was the cause.

That determination was made through a review of Washington's medical records, which were obtained with the permission of his descendants for a University of Maryland medical conference that looks each year at the cause of death of an historical figure.

Past conferences have looked at the deaths of Alexander the Great, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Florence Nightingale and Edgar Allan Poe.

Washington's records show that his blood pressure was 225 over 145, nearly double the 120 over 80 that is considered normal. The records also show that a blood test ruled out syphillis, a sexually transmitted disease that was widespread at the time and thought to be a particular problem among blacks, according to Dr. Philip Mackowiak, the organizer and creator of the University of Maryland conference.

Washington, a former slave who taught himself to read and write, found over 300 uses for the lowly peanut. He was the first president of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and one of the most prominent black Americans at the turn of the 20th century, advising presidents and philanthropists.

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