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Did Stephen Ambrose Sanitize Meriwether Lewis’s Death?

Upon publishing my finding of neurosyphilis as the probable underlying cause of the death of Meriwether Lewis in 1809, I sent a copy to Stephen Ambrose and soon received this reply:

Helena, MT, June 22, 1994. Dear Dr Ravenholt, Thanks for the article. I had heard about it and intended to get it - I've just returned from a month in Europe. I have questions. What was the standard treatment for syphilis? Did the liberal use of mercury for men with vd have any effect upon syphilis? What percentage of those who contract syphilis recover from it? What percentage die? How long, usually, from infection to death? How do symptoms differ from malaria? That is a backward way of saying, couldn't malaria (which we know Lewis had) be as likely a diagnosis as syphilis? I'm not trying to deny that Lewis could have had syphilis. I am fascinated by his sex life, or absence thereof. As a Virginia planter, I think the possibility strong that he took Negro girls whenever and wherever. But as you note neither Lewis or Clark ever indicates anything but rejection of women offered by the Indians, although they are very free in describing the actions of the men. York especially. It seems hardly possible that two young, verile men could have remained celibate with all that flesh being offered to them. And what about the booze? Can't moonshine make you crazy? Beyond that, are not Lewis's symptoms in the last two years of his life compatible with a diagnosis of alcoholism? I hope you find time in your busy life to scribble down some short answers. Right now I have Lewis about to depart from the Mandans for the trek across the plains and mountains. It will be a couple of months before I get to the night of August 13, 1805. When I write it up I want to get it right. My mind is open. Another question: could you do a bit of speculation on when Lewis wrote that Aug. 13 entry? In the morning is the way it reads, but he wqas terribly busy that morning. That evening? During the winter at Fort Clatsop? The quotation you got from Frenchy Chuinard (p. 378, bottom of first column and top of second) is spurious. Lewis never was a boyfriend of Theodosia. That is all fiction. Thanks for sending me the article. I'll certainly be using it in my biography.

Sincerely, Stephen Ambrose.

Despite the above letter, in his book, Undaunted Courage Ambrose accorded only two dismissive sentences to my finding of neurosyphilis as the underlying cause:

A suggestion has been made that Lewis's mental problems stemmed not from hypochondria, as Jefferson would have it, or a manic depressive syndrome, but from the effects of an advanced case of syphilis. It is more intriguing and speculative than convincing. (p. 467).

He wrote thus despite stating on page 292," 'brakings out or irruptions of the skin,' probably caused by venereal disease contracted from the Shoshone women." -- while artfully omitting from this sentence the key diary clause by Lewis:"brakings out or irruptions of the skin have been common with us for some time" -- tantamount to Lewis writing that he had syphilis.

It seems that upon reading my article, Ambrose was considerably impressed that Lewis probably did suffer from neurosyphilis; but as he researched and wrote toward his hero book, he no doubt found it increasingly awkward to mention that Lewis had developed syphilis.

By avoiding the diagnosis of syphilis, which fits perfectly well with all the evidence (as attested to by a consensus of expert physician/epidemiologists), and attributing Lewis's suicide to"depression" and"manic depression," Ambrose unfortunately impugns Lewis's strength of mind and courage by implying that he was such a weak character that he would self-destruct simply because he was psychologically depressed -- despite being at the peak of his accomplishments and fame and being Governor of Upper Louisiana Territory! It is no more an adequate answer to the question of why Lewis committed suicide than to explain that a man frozen to death died"because he got too cold"!

Of course, Lewis was deeply depressed -- as any man would be, if suffering successive attacks of syphilitic brain fever and seeing his mind and life slipping away. The diagnosis of neurosyphilis answers many associated questions perfectly well:

  • Why Lewis and comrades suffered"brakings out or irruptions of the skin" five weeks after having partied with Shoshone women during two nights,13-14 August 1805; and why after 19 September he became so seriously ill during some weeks and ceased writing in the diaries during three months?
  • Why Lewis and Clark remained six weeks in St Louis after returning thereto 23 September 1806 -- instead of hurrying on during favorable October weather to report to eagerly awaiting President Jefferson and the U.S. Congress? A likely explanation is that Lewis and others having contracted syphilis on the expedition, needed to undergo a month-long course of treatment with mercury, etc, under the care of Dr Antoine Saugrain, an able French physician friend of Lewis employed by the U.S. Army there.

  • Why Lewis was ill and incapacitated while living with Jefferson in the White House, January-March 1807; and why Lewis was unable to advance his highest-priority task -- the writing of a book on expedition experiences and findings -- in Philadelphia, April-July 1807, and in Virginia that fall?

  • Why he remained in Albemarle, Virginia with his mother the following winter -- when he should have been in St Louis handling his duties as Governor of the Louisiana Territory?

  • Why his financial and general good judgment capability rapidly deteriorated in St Louis during 1808-9, leading to his distressed departure on a riverboat on 4 September 1809?

  • Why he suffered febrile attacks with extreme disorientation and twice attempted suicide en route to Chickasaw Bluffs (Memphis); and why he committed suicide at Grinder's Stand on the Natchez Trace on October 11th ?

From their reactions to his death, it is apparent that family and closest friends knew why Lewis killed himself. And when we now realize that he was suffering the ultimate agony of advancing neurosyphilis -- losing his mind and verging on utter madness -- we can truly sympathize with him and fully admire his ultimate courage in facing the facts squarely and self-destructing on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee on October 11th, to protect his reputation and his family and friends.

Some readers will dislike the thought that Meriwether Lewis died of neurosyphilis, but others will mourn anew, with greater understanding, admiration, and compassion, this heroic leader who, I believe, died an agonizingly tragic death from an infection acquired in the line of duty while on a difficult and dangerous mission for his president and his country.

Historians differ in their motivational genre: some mainly seeking to burnish recognized icons; others everlastingly seeking to lift the veil of time to discover new facts and relationships and insights into the lives and activities of interesting characters, leaders, events, and epochs -- no matter if unsettling to some traditionalists.

The published reactions of Stephen Ambrose, Ken Burns, Gary Moulton and Clay Jenkins to my finding of syphilis as the underlying cause of death for Meriwether Lewis, indicate they are of the first genre. Perhaps additional incontrovertible DNA evidence for Lewis having had syphilis may yet emerge from skeletal remains; but for experienced medical scientists, the current evidence for neurosyphilis as the underlying cause of Lewis/s death seems reliably strong.

Readers interested in more information about Meriwether Lewis's medical history can consult Dr. Ravenholt's website, www.ravenholt.com. Look for the article titled,"Trail's End for Meriwether Lewis: The Role of Syphilis."