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Medical detectives put Lenin under the microscope

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Medical detectives put Lenin under the microscope


Michael Woods, Medical Journal


Published: Sunday, Mar. 20, 2005


Workers such as airline pilots, bus drivers and surgeons - who hold the lives of other people in their hands - are expected to take a break from work when they develop physical or mental illness that could affect their performance.


Heads of state who develop incapacitating illness sometimes ignore that basic rule of occupational medicine, even though their decisions can affect millions of people.


A long list of political leaders has stayed in power despite serious illnesses that may have lessened their ability to lead.


King George III of England, for instance, sometimes had to be put in a strait jacket and chained to a chair to control his insane outbursts. Former United States presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt had strokes that seemingly affected their judgment.


Former President John F. Kennedy looked tan and fit, but actually was taking a dozen medications a day for severe back pain, intestinal problems, Addison’s disease (a disorder of the adrenal glands) and other problems.


The newest addition to the list - Vladimir Illyich Lenin - may top them all in terms of the eventual toll in human life. Lenin founded the Bolshevik Party, which ushered the Soviet Union into existence. This year is the 81st anniversary of his death.


Lenin died at 53 on Jan. 21, 1924, after a long illness. In those final years, a political enemy named Joseph Stalin positioned himself to seize power after Lenin’s death. Stalin changed the country’s direction.


Historians rank Stalin among history’s greatest mass murderers. Through political purges, a contrived famine in the Ukraine and other acts, Stalin may have caused more than 12 million deaths.


A new study suggests that syphilis may have let power slip into Stalin’s grasp.


Rumors have circulated for decades that Lenin had syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease that can be fatal if not treated. The disease gradually spreads throughout the body and there was no effective treatment in Lenin’s day.


In the final stages, it damages the brain and blood vessels in ways that can lead to depression, lethargy, memory loss and strokes.


Until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, however, medical records of Lenin’s illness and autopsy were secret. Since then, however, more and more information has leaked out, including recollections of doctors who treated Lenin and those present at the autopsy.


That information strongly supports the idea that Lenin died from syphilis that he caught decades earlier - and not from hardening of the arteries as the official Soviet accounts contended.


Researchers from the Be’er Sheva Mental Health Center in Israel now have analyzed the full body of information on Lenin’s illness. It included records of Lenin’s treatment by famous psychiatrists who treated only one disease - syphilis.


The researchers concluded that syphilis is the only explanation Lenin’s symptoms and the autopsy findings.


Lenin must have known his fate. What if he had stepped aside in favor of a trusted associate capable of dealing with Stalin?


Michael Woods is a medical writer for The Toledo Blade. Contact him at mwoods@nationalpress.com.

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