Jean-Françoise Champollion—Revisiting his illnesses and death
|Portrait of Champollion (1790–1832). Oil painting by Léon Cognie1, 1831. Louvre Museum. Via Wikimedia. Public domain.|
“I’ve found it!” In 1822, Jean-Françoise Champollion (December 23, 1790 – March 4, 1832) told his brother he had a breakthrough in deciphering the Rosetta Stone, then collapsed to the floor. He had been ill for most of his life with various complaints—fainting and collapse, cough, chest pain, shortness of breath, gout, pedal edema, headache, tinnitus, and generally poor health. The relationship between these symptoms and his early demise is uncertain, but his death at age 42 from a stroke came much sooner than expected, and as his brother refused an autopsy, no definitive cause of death was recorded.1
Champollion was born in Figeac, France. He disliked every school he attended because they would not allow him to pursue his own studies, and he constantly complained that the inadequate learning environment caused his occasional illnesses. In 1801, his brother Jacques-Joseph brought him to Grenoble, where he would flourish. He presented his first academic paper three years later and, at a private school, began his studies of Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, and Chaldean.1
Champollion transferred to a more affordable lyćee in 1804, a school he called a “prison.” His health began to deteriorate; he was never entirely well afterward. As for Champollion’s poor health, his brother dismissed his schoolboy complaints as fabricated to escape the detested lyćee. In 1807, Champollion left school and began independent study, and at the age of 17, he gave a presentation to Grenoble’s Society of Arts and Sciences. A few months later, he was elected to the Society’s membership.
Champollion later moved to Paris to study Near Eastern languages and became an assistant university professor and assistant librarian. His cough and shortness of breath reportedly worsened in the city, so the polluted air, poor nutrition, and inadequate living conditions may have affected his respiratory tract.2
Furthermore, France was in political turmoil during the early part of Champollion’s career. He had powerful patrons who blocked his enlistment in the war between Napoleon and the royalty, but his belief in the Napoleonic state led to his exile from Grenoble. Between 1816 and 1821, Champollion had no money or employment, was separated from his brother, and faced opposition from other linguists. His time in exile also adversely affected his research and health.
Champollion returned to Grenoble, and his political activities resumed, though opposition forced him to return to Paris. His health worsened once again, but he continued to work on translating the Rosetta Stone. In 1822, he recognized the importance of Coptic in relating the Greek to hieroglyphs, and so had his breakthrough.
In the course of his work, Champollion was infuriated by academic sabotage and accusations of plagiarism and incompetence. Several other linguists were involved in the deciphering of hieroglyphics: Kircher, de Sacy, Zoëga, Åkerblad, and especially Thomas Young.2 Champollion’s dealings with them, in part due to his own hubris, were a significant source of stress, and continuous hostilities consumed much of his energy. Although he relied on their work throughout his attempts on deciphering the Rosetta Stone, he never admitted it, and he increased his unhealthy work schedule to be the first to publish a translation of hieroglyphs.
Champollion visited Egypt in 1829 and translated many inscriptions. However, while there, he was troubled by severe gout, shortness of breath, and a collapse in a tomb. On return to France, he was quarantined for a month without cause, which was a significant blow to his health. Nonetheless, Champollion was appointed the world’s first professor of Egyptology at the College of France in 1830 and continued his work.
Champollion again collapsed, unconscious, during a lecture on December 9, 1831, followed by a cerebral event on December 13—likely a stroke, which left him partly paralyzed and bedridden. Thanks to some unknown treatment, he could leave his bed after a few days, but he could no longer control his movements and had great difficulty writing. In mid-January, he collapsed again and lost all movement but was able to speak.1 His condition declined, and Champollion died on March 4, 1832.
Biographer Jean Lacouture published a letter written by Champollion’s doctors after his death. They surmised that Champollion suffered from:
Very complicated disease […] General weakening giving rise to diabetes. Quarantine; excitement of the Revolution, continual fatigue, presentiments of its death. Moral causes [which have] terrible consequences for diabetes; poor healing of wounds, result: galloping consumption. another cause: rising gout. Champollion had rather congestions than true attacks of apoplexy. […] His laborious journey, the baleful air emanating from the tombs of the kings, too frequent absorption of the waters of the Nile, all this caused a disease of the liver too late to be recognized. The ardor of his brain, the continual preoccupations of his mind had charred his blood and led him to the tomb.3
Both medical diagnosis and treatment in the early 19th century were inexact, as we can conclude from the letter. Cathartics, laxatives, and even blood-letting remained the treatments for most diseases. While Laennec’s introduction of the stethoscope in 1816 has been well studied by historians, much less is known about its reception by contemporary practitioners.4
Recently, biographers and physicians have proposed many retrospective diagnoses, including rupture of a cerebral aneurysm,5 an illness acquired in Egypt, the poor Parisian air, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS),6 tuberculosis,3 complications of diabetes, vasovagal events, an infectious disease, and stress and exhaustion. Many agree that a partial stroke preceded a massive and final stroke.
Nasser and Savitzki5 postulate Champollion’s cause of death as a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. They believe that his chronic problems of fainting, weakness, and episodes of collapse were symptoms of a central nervous system disease that presaged his cause of death. However, this diagnosis does not consider the usual time course of a leaking cerebral aneurysm and his various other symptoms, such as chest pain, dyspnea, and pedal edema. Nasser dismisses left ventricular outlet obstruction as an underlying disease due to Champollion’s periods of relative health and his ability for foreign travel.
A neurodegenerative disease or ALS is the conclusion of Ashrafian, who based this diagnosis on his interpretations of Champollion’s symptoms.6 However, these symptoms did not follow the linear degenerative pathway associated with such diseases.
Robinson has the most complete list of Champollion’s illnesses, but attributes them to multiple causes: self-inflicted, reading with one eye under a blanket, sensitive mind, excitement, the air in Paris, the stale air in Egyptian tombs.1
When considering the timeline of Champollion’s symptoms and being aware of the dearth of accurate reporting, there are two other diagnoses that should be considered.
In the late eighteenth century, rheumatic fever was common, and aortic or pulmonary valve stenosis, which may be congenital or rheumatic, are possible.4 Patients with pulmonary valve stenosis may develop symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath (especially during activity), chest pain, arrhythmias, and fainting as they age, though generally in a more benign course than that of aortic stenosis.7 This diagnosis supports the gradual increase in most of Champollion’s symptoms over his life.4
Although rare, stroke has been mentioned in association with isolated pulmonary valve stenosis, though this would require bilateral heart failure. Champollion’s increasing shortness of breath and edema might reflect this condition.8
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), an unknown disease at the time, is typically considered to affect the left ventricle but can also cause abnormalities in the right ventricle (RV).9 Right heart failure potentially increases the incidence of dyspnea, supraventricular arrhythmias, and pulmonary embolism.9 Patients with HCM are also at a high risk of death due to cerebral ischemic or cardiovascular events. Both can lead to stroke symptoms or cardiovascular failure, including ventricular arrhythmias leading to cardiac arrest.10
HCM, which may become more severe over time, also explains many of Champollion’s intermittent symptoms, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and cardiac failure. His final strokes can be explained by arrhythmias, an MI, or emboli originating in the heart.10
We can never determine the actual cause or causes of Champollion’s death—it remains a medical mystery. What we can understand is his extraordinary decipherment of hieroglyphics and opening of a door into the then-untold history of ancient Egypt.
- Robinson, WA. Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion. Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Adkins, L. and R. Adkins. The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs. HarperCollins, 2000.
- Lacouture, J. Champollion: une vie de lumieres. Librairie generale francaise, 1991.
- English, P. “Emergence of rheumatic fever in the nineteenth century.” Milbank Quarterly, 1989;67 suppl. 1:33-49.
- Nasser, N. and D. Savitski. “What Caused Jeanne-Francoise Champollion, Decipherer of the Ancient Egyptian Scripts, Premature Death?” Medical Case Reports, 2015.
- Ashrafian, H. “Deciphering the death of Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832), the man who decoded ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.” Neurophysiol Clin. 2015:178-179.
- Chaix, M. and A. Dore. “Pulmonary Stenosis.” In Diagnosis and Management of Adult Congenital Heart Disease, third ed. Elsevier, 2018.
- Ruckdeschel, E. and Y.Y. Kim. “Pulmonary valve stenosis in the adult patient: pathophysiology, diagnosis and management.” Heart, 2019;105(5):414-422.
- Mozaffarian, D. and J.H. Caldwell. “Right ventricular involvement in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy: a case report and literature review.” Clin Cardiol, 2001;24(1):2-8.
- Fauchier, L., et al. “Ischemic Stroke in Patients With Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy According to Presence or Absence of Atrial Fibrillation.” Stroke, 2022;53(2):497-504.
MAUREEN HIRTHLER is a retired physician and Managing Editor of the Intima, a Journal of Narrative Medicine. She received her MFA from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has published extensively in the medical humanities. She lives with her husband and two dogs and raises orchids. Maureen has a life-long interest in the ancient history of Egypt, and has studied with the Oriental Institute of Chicago.
RICHARD HUTCHISON is a retired hand surgeon with an MS in Data Science from New College of Florida. His publications are primarily academic, but he has also written essays connecting the arts with the structure and function of the hand. He lives with his wife and two dogs and enjoys boating, jogging, and working outdoors.
Winter 2023 | Sections | History Essays