Treble in the Time of Syphilis

This post started with the question to my wife “How many classical composers have had syphilis??” She is a bit more knowledgeable than I am about classical music, but even she didn’t know off-hand (other than, a lot of them).

The truth is, before antibiotics came on the scene in 1928, syphilis was really common. Like “throw-a-rock-at-a-crowd-and-you’ll-hit-someone-with-syphilis” common during the worst outbreaks. According to a 2008 article in the European Journal of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases, without an effective treatment “the disease spread all over Europe and, in the 18th and 19th centuries, many artists became victims of syphilis, among them poets, painters, philosophers, and musicians and composers.” Famous victims include Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

But why stop at syphilis?

Another disease that claimed many lives, and still does to this day, was tuberculosis — formerly known as “consumption.” Also depression, brain tumors and injuries, and quinsy (bonus points if you know what that is!). It’s all detailed in this interesting article on about classical composers and their various afflictions.

I decided to scrape all the data from the article using Python’s BeautifulSoup package, then pull it into R and visualize it with ggplot, finally uploading the entire thing to (Note: If that sounds like a roundabout way of doing things, here is my excuse: Python is really great for web scraping, but — for me — data visualization with matplotlib can be a labyrinth of various methods for achieving the same outcome. The language of R’s ggplot2 package, however, makes a lot of sense to me.)

The following figure is the result. It’s by no means exhaustive, since it’s pulling from one source. For example, AllMusic claims Paganini died from tuberculosis, but some would argue it was syphilis. You get the idea.

I’d say “enjoy playing around with the plot,” especially the larger version here, but the topic is pretty morbid.

<b> Most-Common Maladies by Classical Composers </b>