Late in his life, Benjamin Franklin suffered much pain, including battles with numerous gout attacks. These episodes caused him much pain and decreased the diplomat’s mobility dramatically. There were many factors that led Franklin to endure these attacks, including eating rich food, drinking alcohol, and, perhaps, being exposed to lead.
The disease known as gout is associated with a buildup of uric acid in the bloodstream. Such a buildup can occur due to a high intake of purine-rich foods. When the uric acid crystallizes in the kidneys, kidney stones may form (Franklin suffered from these as well). However, when they do not attack the kidneys, these crystals often form in joints in the ankle and foot, especially the big toe.
Gout and its Modern Comeback
Gout is often called the “disease of kings” because of its association with rich foods and copious amounts of alcohol that were once only available to aristocrats. However, as today’s American middle- and lower-class have more access to such foods and alcohol, gout is making a comeback in the United States.
A June 12, 2009 New York Times article quotes Barry D. Quart, President and CEO of Ardea Biosciences, who manufacture gout medicine as stating, “It’s kind of like the forgotten disease.” However, the article states that anywhere between two and six million Americans suffer from gout.
Factors Leading to Franklin’s Gout Pain
Franklin’s risk factors for high uric acid included his gender (as men are more likely than women to suffer from gout), genetics, diet, drinking, and exposure to lead. The relationship between gout and uric acid was not confirmed until three years after Franklin’s death. In 1793, Murray Forbes reasoned that because urine contains uric acid, blood must also contain it. He further concluded that too much uric acid led to crystal-like deposits which caused much pain. Despite living without this knowledge, Franklin made many connections between his actions and the pain he felt. Physicians had, for a long time, known of the relationship between red meat, shellfish and gout.
Franklin also had knowledge of the studies of eighteenth-century physician George Cheyne, who had observed that chalkstones taken from the joints of individuals suffering from gout looked identical to the stones found in their bladders. From such studies, they were able to deduce that stones had built up and caused pain and suffering for those who had gout.
Benjamin Franklin, Red Meat, and Wine
Franklin enjoyed eating rich foods and drinking alcohol, especially red meats. During the first half of his life, Franklin practiced moderation when eating and even preached such advice in his annual Poor Richard’s Almanack. However, when Franklin reached Middle Age, he began to eat many meals that included beef, mutton, veal and fish.
Franklin especially loved consuming wine. He did this despite knowing what problems it could cause. This is obvious because he wrote the following in the 1734 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack:
“Be temperate in wine, in eating, girls, and slouth;
Or the Gout will seize you and plague you both.”
Benjamin Franklin and Lead Poisoning
Franklin may have also suffered from lead poisoning, which could raise the factors needed for gout to develop. There were high levels of lead in the wines he enjoyed. Lead in spirits and wines might have been the greatest non-occupational cause of lead poisoning in the 18th century. The lead in the old fortified wines was attributed to the equipment that was used to distill and store the spirits.
Franklin also worked in the printing profession where he may have been exposed to high doses of lead. After handling hot type at Palmer’s Printing House in London, Franklin would often notice an obscure pain in his hands. Occupations such as plumbers, painters, and metalsmiths, who had to handle lead on a daily basis, were very susceptible to lead poisoning.
Benjamin Franklin’s Thoughts On His Gout Attacks
Despite the pain that the gout attacks caused him, Franklin never wanted the gout attacks fully cured. He reasoned, as did many 18th century physicians, that gout might somehow provide “protection” against more serious, potentially fatal illnesses. However, despite this incorrect assumption, his October 1780 dialogue between himself and the gout shows that he did have an understand of what caused his pain. He wrote about how he would make excuses to himself to avoid exercise.
In the end, Jefferson seems to think that he traded his way of life for pain and he was grateful that he only had to suffer from kidney stones and gout. He wrote, “People who live long, who will drink of the cup of life to the very bottom, must expect to meet with the usual dregs, and when I reflect on the number of terrible maladies human nature is subject to, I think myself favoured in having to my share only the stone and the gout.”
- Finger, Stanley and Hagemann, Ian S. “Benjamin Franklin’s Risk Factors for Gout and Stones: From Genes and Diet to Possible Lead Poisoning.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 152:2 (June 2008), 189-206