Hemingway’s Death and Hemochromatosis Awareness

by Stephen Cobb on July 2, 2011

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Ernest Hemingway, one of America’s greatest writers, died from hereditary hemochromatosis on July 2, 1961, exactly 50 years ago today. He was one of many Hemingways who succumbed to America’s most prevalent genetic killer.

You might have read that Hemingway died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but hereditary hemochromatosis–also known as HHC, iron overload, bronze diabetes and Celtic Curse–was undoubtedly the underlying cause of his death. Depression and suicide are closely associated with hemochromatosis, as is the diabetes that afflicted Hemingway, along with his liver problems and high blood pressure.

Quite by coincidence, July is Hemochromatosis Awareness Month in America, a time to raise awareness of what we now know is the most common genetic killer in America. By raising awareness of HHC you can quite literally save lives. And if a giant of literature can help raise HHC awareness, so be it.

How did hemochromatosis kill Hemingway? By causing toxic levels of iron to accumulate in his joints and organs bringing pain, diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, heart disease, and depression. That depression is more than just being unhappy because your body is damaged and your health is failing. That toxic iron accumulation plays its own role in affecting mood and brain function. Sadly, suicide is an all-too-common outcome of undiagnosed hemochromatosis.

Back in the 1950s, when Ernest Hemingway’s health really started to deteriorate, doctors did not have direct evidence that hemochromatosis was genetic, although some doctors were sure that it was an inherited condition. The genetic connection was made in 1996 through research on the HFE gene. This discovery led to a genetic test for the condition and doctors quickly discovered that HHC was a much more common condition than previously thought.

How common is inherited hemochromatosis? Calculations based on field research vary but 1 in 200 Americans is probably a good estimate. Very few potentially fatal genetic conditions, if any, come close to that level of occurrence. Historically the frequency of HHC is higher in populations with an Irish or Celtic connection (the condition is referred to as hereditary hemochromatosis in America, but in Ireland, Scotland, and other parts of Europe, the condition is called genetic haemochromatosis).

Of course, after President Obama’s recent visit with relatives in Ireland, it would be a mistake to characterize HHC as a white or Caucasian or Northern European condition. You can have HHC in your genes pretty much regardless of your physical appearance.

Sadly, the Hemingway family history is a classic saga of HHC. Ernest Hemingway’s father Clarence committed suicide, as had his father before him. Ernest Hemingway’s sister Ursula, and his brother Leicester, also committed suicide. The father of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, committed suicide. From what we now know of genetics and hemochromatosis, all of them would have had hereditary hemochromatosis. Gregory Hemingway, later Gloria Hemingway, died a classic hemochromatosis death from hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Hemochromatosis can be treated and its effects limited and controlled. Treatment of HHC is not only FREE but HHC gives back to society in a way no other disease does! That’s because the treatment for excess iron is to take blood (that is, give blood from the perspective of the hemochromatosis patient being treated).

As for detection and diagnosis, a genetic test that can reveal your HFE gene status is available for less than $100 (a good example is the 23andme service). And simple blood tests that can detect elevated iron levels cost just a few dollars. If you have any reason to think you might have HHC you should ask your doctor to order these tests.

Acceptable reasons include any of the symptoms of HHC and/or a family history of liver disease, depression, suicide, joint pain, or diabetes. (And don’t let anyone tell you that cirrhosis of the liver is always caused by alcohol so your relatives with liver problems are/were heavy drinkers; this story reported in the Washington Post proves otherwise.)

Ernest Hemingway was a giant of American arts and letters. The Winner of a Pulitzer for his fiction, he is one of just five Americans who were among the first 50 winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature. His life and writings continue to inspire and inform people around the world. Now, in the story of his death, his legacy can include saving lives by spreading the word of this treatable but widely under-diagnosed condition, hereditary hemochromatosis.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Aggie Baird July 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm

I am so grateful to my daughters Doctor in Vancouver…..she moved to North Van in 2009 and was dealing with very low energy and joint pain…..Cristi Doctor tested and continued to check when he found her iron levels to be a bit high he then took it a step further…..yes HHC was found after iron saturation, iron binding and

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Jeff Williams July 2, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Here’s my story: http://www.katu.com/news/medicalalert/124634899.html
It’s… the same old story..

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Pamela November 9, 2011 at 12:26 am

Please keep educating others about HH . I was diagnosed almost two years ago at age 42 while in iron overload with almost a 100% saturation level. I am grateful to a dear aunt, an R.N., who insisted I be tested for HH as her sister was diagnosed in her 60′s with non-alcohol related liver damage and HH. While my physicians at the time of my illness just seemed puzzled by my symptoms, this aunt’s intuition and insistence on testing prevented me from having any known organ damage. More importantly, I had my eldest son, age 13, tested (who has c/o joint issues since preschool) and he as well has HH. I know because of this early diagnosis that both of my sons will have the opportunity to lead a healthier life.

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Brenda Harper April 25, 2012 at 11:55 pm

I have a radio program on health and wellness. I am wondering if some from your organization would like to come on my program in July and discuss Hemochromatosis, to help educate the folks in Southern Idaho, the State where Mr. Hemingway now rests.

Brenda Harper

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Mickie Moore August 5, 2012 at 6:46 am

My story unfortunately does not end well. My husband of 27 years passed away May 11, 2011 of what I firmly believe was complications of hemochromatosis. It was only after the fact that it dawned on me what could have been causing his years of symptoms. I remembered that when he was in his 20s, he donated blood regularly, until one time when he was told his blood was not acceptable anymore. I seem to remember that it was because his liver enzymes were up – hepatitis was mentioned (which he did not have) and he was told to be tested for hemochromatosis. He went to the doctor and passed the info along. The doc basically blew off the suggestion that it could be hemochromatosis saying that it was so rare he couldn’t possibly have it. Even said that the blood donation centers were know for making errors. I know now that he didn’t test for it. Instead, he began lecturing how my husband should quit drinking because he was probably an alcoholic. Fast forward 15 years – Rick began suffering bouts of depression and anxiety. He even had heart palpitations and started having joint pain. Alcohol was used to self medicate because he hated taking pills and was very sensitive to side effects. He went to numerous doctors and was told simply that he needed to quit drinking. He did quit for many months at a time. He would try to convince himself that he felt better, when in reality he was getting worse. He had full blood work done annually, but the test for hemochromatosis was never done. In the year prior to his death, the depression was almost unbearable. He now had painfully swollen toe and finger joints (diagnosed as gout or arthritis) and his toenails and fingernails turned yellow and crumbled. He had skin problems and vision problems. Again, he quit drinking for months but felt worse and worse. Finally alcohol was the only thing that relieved his pain. I believe his liver had begun failing up to a year prior to his death. His stomach was swollen and distended and he could not lose weight. He had been to a psychologist and psychiatrist for counseling, also to our family doctor and an internal medicine specialist. No one picked up on the disorder. The weekend before his death, I went out of town to watch our daughter play in the state golf tournament. He was feeling terrible, but convinced me that he would be fine until I got back. We kept in touch through texts and phone conversations. Of course, I was worried, but still believed the primary problem was the depression. He had never contemplated suicide and insisted he would never take his own life. He loved me and our three daughters too much. When we returned home, it was clear he had been drinking heavily for several days. He was relieved to see me, and said that now that I was home we could figure this thing out and get him well. I was angry but not surprised about the drinking, knowing that was the only relief he could get. That night Rick went to sleep – I was hopeful because I know he had not been able to sleep well, if at all, for days. The following morning, he was still sleeping (he had been up in the night to go to the bathroom). I left for an hour to run a few errands, and when I returned, I found him unresponsive. I had no idea how sick he was – the doctors had me convinced he was bipolar and depressed. There was no autopsy, only a toxicology study (wish I had insisted on an autopsy). The final determination on the death certificate was alcohol induced cirrhosis. It has been over a year. I am still angry with myself for not making this connection when we could have helped him. Incidentally, Rick’s younger sister was diagnosed with hemochromatosis a couple of months after his death, after the “light came on” so to speak, and I remembered his experience with the blood center. She is doing well, but donating blood frequently to keep it under control. I have also since found out from my own doctor that the condition can be masked and undetectable in a normal blood test. I have know others suffering with depression or other psychological disorders – my advice is always to exhaust all possible medical causes before taking antidepressants. I firmly believe that most depressive disorders are probably caused by an underlying condition. Just seems that doctors are quick to treat the symptoms and not so willing to truly make the extra effort it takes to discover the root of the problem.

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jana skinner February 12, 2013 at 9:48 am

I am gratful for this web-sight, living in Sun Valley ID I new Margo, Muffet, Mierriel, Jack…Ernist son and his wive Angela. Remember Margo saying she was hearing foices and was going to become ph
ycic before she moved to Santa Monica…..I dont know why this is such ahard thing for dr’s to dignost. If you know sonthing is wrong..keep searching untill they give you a ferritin count.

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Barbara February 19, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Well I have hemochromotosis as well. My twin sister has it with the diabetes so I wanted to be tested. Have been so exhausted lately and can sleep all day. Funny part is…my iron levels are very LOW!! Doctor thinks from colits attacks I get now and again. I have been looking up on computer and found as they put it the “Other Celtic Curse”. Its called celiac…..same symptoms as colitis…but cause low iron, vitamin 12, C etc. Going to call doctor to add this test to my next blood work..Freaky right?? Making alot of sense to me now.

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peter cope May 4, 2013 at 4:50 am

HH sufferers should also be aware, most doctors aren’t, that HH is strongly associated with stroke, as I found out to my cost in2006. I was fanatically fit, a marathon runer, but I stil suffered a massive stroke. My sister who is also HH takes precautionary aspirin daily. I don’t know why this isn’t standardpractice, the cause may be more specific than the atherosclerosis. There is some evidence that the HH gene interferes with the structure on th carotid arteries, If you want refererences email me.

peter cope

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rena beattie June 16, 2014 at 6:33 pm

My husband and i both have hh we discovered because our daughter was tested her ferrinton level was very high we both went to be tested and fould out we had it . our doctor knows this but never checks our iron overload. so much for us knowing. good luck to all rena

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