Known for her poetry, letters, love affair and marriage to Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning also left a legacy of unanswered questions about her lifelong chronic illness. Now, a Penn State anthropologist, with the aid of her daughter, may have unraveled the mystery. Born in 1806, Barrett Browning suffered throughout her life from incapacitating weakness, heart palpitations, intense response to heat and cold, intense response to illnesses as mild as a cold, and general exhaustion in bouts that lasted from days to months or years. Her doctors were unable to diagnose or treat her illness, which apparently first appeared around age 13. "Conjectures by modern biographers about Barrett Browning's condition include anorexia nervosa, neurasthenia; tuberculosis; pertussis, an encephalomyelitis; non-paralytic poliomyelitis; paralytic scoliosis, or the lifetime effects of injuries to her spine from falling from her horse in early adolescence; opium addiction; and mental illness, including anxiety and agoraphobia," Dr. Anne Buchanan, research associate in anthropology at Penn State, reports in the Autumn 2011 issue of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. Some have even attributed her illness to defense against the inferior status and treatment of Victorian women, or simply to malingering. Ellen Buchanan Weiss, Dr. Buchanan's daughter, noted the symptoms recorded in Barrett Browning's letters because the symptoms seemed so similar to those that she experienced. Buchanan Weiss has hypokalemic periodic paralysis (HKPP), a muscle disorder that causes blood levels of potassium to fall because potassium becomes trapped in muscle cells. The disorder was first described in 1874 in German and then in 1901 in English. Barrett Browning died in 1861, long before physicians would have any idea of HKPP.
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