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Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Keats-Shelley house by the Spanish Steps in Rome

Keats spent his last months in Rome, before succumbing in February 1821 at the age of 25 to consumption - tuberculosis. He had earlier nursed his brother Tom until the latter's demise from consumption at the age of 19. Keats had trained as an apothecary and had studied medicine at St Thomas' Hospital: surviving records mention treatment given by a "Mr Keats".

As a remarkable example of individual differences in susceptibility to the disease, the artist
Photo © Donald Singer: Keats-Shelley House and Spanish Steps, Rome
Joseph Severn survived until the age of 85, despite living with Keats for 3 months in Rome and nursing Keats' during this final illness. Severn painted Keats on his deathbed.

Shelley travelled to Rome after Keats' death and wrote the poem Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats. Whether for effect or real belief, Shelley is reported to have attributed the major cause of this final illness to bleeding from ruptured lungs in response to poor critical reception of Keats' poetry. Keats was more sanguine. He was confident in future recognition, writing to his brother George in 1819: "
‘I have no doubt of success in a course of years if I persevere ..."

The Vatican authorities were pragmatic,  aware in 1821 of consumption as a potentially transmissable disease. They gave instructions that all contents of Keats' rooms at Piazza di Spagna were to be removed and destroyed by burning - including his boat bed and the wallpaper.  

This was in the tradition of the germ theory of disease, which dated at least from Varro in 36BC, to microscope inventor Van Leeuwenhoek’s reports in the 17th Century, with firm evidence reported later in the 19th Century by Semmelweiss in Vienna, Koch in Berlin and Pasteur in Paris. 

Robert Koch was the first to describe the causative tubercle bacillus, supported by his formulation of postulates about evidence to confirm disease causation. Koch's investigations and discoveries in relation to tuberculosis lead to his receipt of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. 

Read further historical notes about tuberculosis

The Tempest and Prospero's curse : magic, pleurisy, and other thoughts

Tuberculosis, Bel Ami and the Belle Epoque

More on the Keats-Shelley House: 26 Piazza de Spagna in Rome



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