We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Alexander the Infected

Oct 1, 1998 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:06 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

A late-fourth-century B.C. coroner's report might have read something like this: Name of deceased: The Great, Alexander. Age: 32. Occupation: Ruler of known world. Cause of death: Under investigation.

Alexander died on June 10, 323 B.C., in Babylon shortly after returning from his campaigns in India. Historians have speculated about the cause of his death for centuries. Poisoning, malaria, and even heavy drinking have been blamed. David Oldach, an infectious-diseases expert at the University of Maryland, and Eugene Borza, a retired historian who taught at Penn State, now offer a new diagnosis. They suggest that typhoid fever killed Alexander.

People contract typhoid fever by eating food or drinking water infected with the bacterium Salmonella typhi. The disease is still common in some developing countries where sewage contaminates drinking water. If not treated with antibiotics, typhoid fever kills 20 to 30 percent of those infected.

Historical accounts say that before dying, Alexander suffered from chills, sweat, exhaustion, extremely high fever, and severe pain. Eventually he fell into a coma and died. While many bacterial infections show some of these symptoms, Oldach says typhoid fever best accounts for the course of Alexander's last days. The severe pain was particularly telling because, if untreated, typhoid fever can perforate the bowel. "His illness is a classic description of typhoid," says Oldach. "It just makes perfect sense."

Oldach and Borza's theory also explains a curious historical anecdote: Alexander's body supposedly did not begin to decay until several days after his death. Historians have dismissed this as myth, but the legend might be explained by a rare complication of typhoid fever called ascending paralysis. The paralysis gradually seizes the entire body and depresses breathing. Alexander, says Oldach, might have appeared dead to his entourage before he actually died.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.