Eugene O’Neill Autopsy Results Revealed

Alcoholism, Parkinson’s Disease were not Factors in American Playwright’s Death

April 12, 2000 -- Belmont, MA -- Researchers from McLean Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have released previously sealed autopsy results of Nobel and Pulitzer prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, which provide clinical and anatomical proof of his actual cause of death.

Reporting in the April 13 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, Bruce H. Price, MD, chief of the Department of Neurology at McLean Hospital, debunks the long-held beliefs that O’Neill died from complications of alcoholism and suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Instead, Price asserts that O’Neill suffered from an ultimately lethal neurodegenerative disease—cortical cerebellar atrophy (CCA)—a disease of unknown origin that results in the progressive loss of key cells in the middle part of the cerebellum. The article traces O’Neill’s health over a 12-year period during which the playwright’s abilities to write, walk and talk disintegrated while his mind remained intact. O’Neill died from pneumonia in 1953.

The autopsy provides anatomical evidence that O’Neill’s liver, other brain regions and testes, organs frequently affected by chronic alcoholism, were normal. The autopsy also shows that O’Neill’s drinking did not contribute to his neurological condition nor to the tremors that began in his early twenties, a benign condition that ran in O’Neill’s family.

"O’Neill’s personal records and biographies suggest that for at least 25 years before his death, he did not use alcohol in excess and that during his last eight years, he consumed none at all," writes Price.

The paper also documents O’Neill’s life-long battle with depression, which he attributed later on in life to what he thought was Parkinson’s. "I am terribly upset by such exuberant blues, and if the docs didn’t say these things were all part of the game, I would feel more than slightly nuts," O’Neill wrote to his son Eugene, Jr, in 1944.

"Knowing what we do today, we probably could have helped O’Neill’s depression and treated his tremors. However, although we know much more about the biology underlying cortical cerebellar atrophy, a cure is still not available," said Price. "Given our advances in modern medicine over the past 50 years, the quality of O’Neill’s life, if not the quantity, would have been significantly better today."

An O’Neill enthusiast, Price said the idea to write the paper was spurred 10 years ago after a discussion with his mentor and colleague, Marsel Mesulam, MD, a behavioral neurologist formerly from Boston and now at Northwestern University. "There was an article in a literary magazine at that time, suggesting that O’Neill suffered from epilepsy. We doubted that. And so began the journey into the true cause of Eugene O’Neill’s death," said Price.

Price co-authored the paper with the late E.P. Richardson, Jr, MD, Bullard Professor of Neuropathology Emeritus at MGH, who oversaw O’Neill’s autopsy in 1953. The paper contains x-ray slides of O’Neill’s brain and handwriting samples demonstrating the deterioration in the playwright’s physical condition.