Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Frederick Delius and his neurological disease

Photograph of Frederick Delius
. 1907. From Monographien moderner musiker. Via Wikimedia.

The life of the English composer Frederick Delius and his tragic encounter with the spirochaeta pallida has been extensively documented. He was born in 1862 in the industrial Yorkshire town of Bradford. His family had come to England from Germany but was originally Dutch, having changed its name in the sixteenth century from Delij or Deligh to a latinized version. His father was a successful wool merchant who endeavored in vain to interest his son, originally called Fritz, to follow his profession, sending him on business errands to Germany, Sweden, and also in England. By the time Fritz was twenty-two years old, it was clear that he had no interest in the wool trade and he was sent by his father to manage an orange grove in St. Johns County, Florida. In this he was also unsuccessful, but his musical horizon was extended by contact with African-American spirituals and folk music of the American South. For a short time he became a violin teacher in Virginia, then left for Leipzig, where he obtained a music diploma. It was there that he met Edvard Grieg, who encouraged him and became a lifelong friend. Moving to fin de siècle Paris, where he wrote most of his compositions, he became infected with syphilis around 1895. He met the German painter Jelka Rosen in 1897. They married in 1903 and set up home in the village of Grez-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau. In 1907, he became acquainted with Thomas Beecham, who was to be the greatest champion of his music. He remained well for some twenty years, the usual time it takes to develop neurosyphilis. In 1909 he was still at the height of his physical powers and able to climb mountains.

Symptoms began in 1910 at about the age of forty-eight. As he had no faith in conventional medicine, he first tried homeopathic remedies and even consulted a hypnotist. He also took a course of iodide and saltpeter but without notable improvement. His symptoms progressing, he entered a sanitarium in Dresden. His Wasserman test was strongly positive, and he had a nodular syphilitic lesion on his thigh. Neurologically he had loss of deep tendon reflexes, loss of strength in the proximal muscles of the thigh, and Argyle Robertson pupils—irregular and unreactive to light, the classical changes of tabes dorsalis, the neurologic manifestation of tertiary syphilis. He refused treatment with salvarsan, which had by then become available, and again preferred homeopathic remedies.

The disease progressed to painful so-called gastric crises, severe episodes of abdominal pain, and to shooting pains in his legs. Yet at age fifty in 1922 he was still able to go for the summer in Norway. He spent some two months taking a cure at Bad Oeynhausen near Hanover; he was also seen in consultation by Sir John Conybeare, later the author of a popular textbook of medicine, who at first questioned the diagnosis of syphilis. In 1925 his condition rapidly deteriorated and he became confined to a wheelchair. Syphilis also affected his eyes in the form of optic neuritis, and soon he could only distinguish light.

Though paralyzed and unable to see, he continued to compose with the help of a twenty-two year-old Yorkshire man, Eric Fenby, who came to France and between 1928 and 1934, and was able to take down some of Delius’s compositions. As Delius’s muscles became increasingly paralyzed and wasted from syphilitic amyotrophy, he became frail and debilitated, in constant pain. He drifted into a coma and died July 10, 1934, in Grez-sur-Loing, France, where he had been moved to join his wife. She outlived him by one year and was interred near her husband.


  1. John O’Shea. Was a Mozart poisoned? Medical investigations into the lives of the great composers. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1990, page 187.
  2. Wainapel S.F. Frederick Delius: the man, the composer, the patient. Journal of Medical Biography 1993; 1: 160.
  3. Lederman R. J. Frederick Delius: controversies regarding his neurological disorder and its impact on his compositional output. Progress in Brain Research 2015; 216:217 (Chapter 10.)

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Summer 2021



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