When Nietzsche went mad in January 1889, the initial diagnosis was paretic syphilis. but as later investigators point this definitely wasn’t the case. In this episode we are going to explore the “circus-like history of controversies over the syphilis diagnosis”.
Nietzsche was diagnosed with the disease despite meeting none of the five core symptoms of paretic syphilis. This initial diagnosis and its early backer—the notorious popular science writer Dr Mobius—was scrutinised by two biographers in the late 1920s but they were completely overshadowed by the account of the psychiatrist Lange-Eichbaum—an admirer of Mobius—who started the myth that Nietzsche had been treated for syphilis in 1867 during his student years in Leipzig. Despite the fact this information came from Mobius (who allegedly heard it from two Leipzig doctors that nobody has ever been able to track down and whose letters informing him of the matter had since been destroyed) it became canonical history. It took 70 years beyond Lange-Eichmann’s work before this narrative was questioned. In his pivotal article on the matter Leonard Sax sums up the situation as a case of:
“One man's gossip becomes another man's reference, which in turn becomes a scholar's footnote.”
But Nietzsche’s madness was not caused by syphilis and we don’t know the real cause. Sax argues for its being a brain tumour; another author Eva Cybulska argues that it was a result of Nietzsche having bipolar disorder and others again argue its origin was purely psychological. Short of exhuming his body there is no way of confirming for sure.
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Cybulska, E.M., 2000. The madness of Nietzsche: a misdiagnosis of the millennium?. Hospital Medicine, 61(8), pp.571-575.
Sax, L., 2003. What was the cause of Nietzsche's dementia?. Journal of Medical Biography, 11(1), pp.47-54.
Breazeale, D., 1991. Ecce Psycho: Remarks on the case of Nietzsche. International studies in philosophy, 23(2), pp.19-33.
Hollingdale, R.J., 2001. Nietzsche: The man and his philosophy. Cambridge University Press.
Huenemann, C., 2008. Nietzsche's illness. in The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche. edited by Gemes, K. and Richardson, J. Oxford University Press.
Kaufmann, W.A., 2013. Nietzsche: Philosopher, psychologist, antichrist (Vol. 104). Princeton University Press.
Nietzsche, F.W., 1968. Basic writings of Nietzsche. Modern Library Classics.
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