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Robert Schumann's contribution to the genetics of psychosis

  • Katharina Domschke
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The British Journal of Psychiatry
  • ISSN: 0007-1250
  • EISSN: 1472-1465
  • URL: /core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry
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Robert Schumann's contribution to the genetics of psychosis

  • Katharina Domschke
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eLetters

The Diagnoses of Robert Schumann

Gordon P Lehany, ST6 Forensic Psychiatry
02 June 2010

I read with interest the article by Katharina Domschke regarding Schumann’s alleged contribution to the genetics of psychosis.

Unfortunately, it is by no means clear from the evidence from what illness or illnesses Schumann suffered.

Much has been written over the last 150 years regarding possible illnesses from which Schumann may have suffered and many notable names in the history of psychiatry have postulated diagnoses. It is possible that he suffered from a long-term functional mental illness such as Schizophrenia or Bipolar disorder, but it is equally possible he may not. The nature of his final illness and early death is not sufficiently well described to allow certainty in diagnosing functional mental illness, and indeed in the context of Schumann’s personality and lifestyle there are many reasonable hypotheses that can be made. This includes that he died of an organic illness and had no life-long mental illness; that he had a condition such as Syphilis; or that he had Schizophrenia or Bipolar Affective Disorder; or indeed all of the above, or none of the above. Schumann’s doctor for his final illness seemed clear in his view that Schumann suffered from General Paralysis, which would later be understood to be a manifestation of Syphilis, and with which psychiatrists in the nineteenth century would have been familiar, unlike today.

Biographies contain many different formulations for possible illnesses suffered by Schumann. I doubt any diagnosis can, or should, be definitively ascribed to Schumann from this distance in time, but personally I find the possibility of neurosyphilis the most likely hypothesis. If this were correct it would make further psychiatric diagnoses difficult to defend without clearer evidence. Certainly expanding theories to include specific genetic markers for mental illness and generating hypothetical pedigrees, while entertaining, is stretching things rather. The proposed diagnosis for Emilie in particular is interesting. According to Worthen, “The only certain thing is that those who have concluded that Emilie was ‘clearly psychotically ill’ …. Are victims of their desire to impose mental illness upon the Schumann family.” It is indeed far from clear even that Emilie died from suicide.

There is also a more serious side to this discussion though, and one which should give reason for caution among would-be pathographers. The entertainment of speculative diagnosis of Schumann, as engaged in by many eminent psychiatrists, is far from a harmless pastime. It has in all probability affected the appraisal of Schumann’s music and altered the course of music criticism for over a century.

References

1. Worthen J. Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician. Yale University Press, 2007.

2. Ostwald P. Schumann: Music and Madness. Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1985.

3. Wasielewski V. (Translation Alger A.) Life of Robert Schumann. Oliver Ditson Company, 1871. Originally published in German in 1857.

4. Fuller-Maitland J. Robert Schumann. Sampson Low, Marston & Co., Ltd, 1884.

5. Daverio J. Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician. OUP, 1997.
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Conflict of interest: None Declared

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