The spirochete that killed Schumann

The spirochete that killed Schumann


norman lebrecht

September 18, 2016

It is widely accepted that Robert Schumann died of the effects of tertiary syphilis, a disease he contracted while very young, possibly from his father’s household maid.

Amid renewed discussion of Schumann’s condition, Dr George Dunea, editor of the Hektoen journal of medical humanities, gives an up-to-date assessment of the evidence.

Schumann’s illness has given rise to considerable controversy, continuing even after his medical records emerged in 1991 and were published in 2006. His history of mental illness was an embarrassment to the Nazi authorities, whose laws mandated compulsive sterilization of schizophrenics and manic-depressives, giving rise to the claim that he had hypertension leading to vascular dementia. But surviving records indicate otherwise. In his diary he wrote that ”in 1831 I was syphilitic and treated with arsenic.” It has been postulated that he may been infected as a student. Less credibly, that he caught the infection from his sister (who had a chronic skin disease and mental problems) perhaps by contact with wet towels or sharp objects – so-called syphilis innocens.

Read on here.

robert and clara schumann




  • Elene Gusch says:

    The linked article is fascinating and credible, but the paralysis of Schumann’s right hand didn’t come from syphilis. From everything we know, it occurred early in his life and was the direct result of his attempts to stretch his hand with a mechanical device. He couldn’t have developed neurological damage like that from syphilis until much later.

    I have to wonder, if Schumann did have syphilis, why Clara did not develop symptoms. She bore a bunch of children who did fine and she lived to old age.

    • Rosemary Lilley says:

      Four of Schumann’s children died young, one son was committed to an asylum. Clara developed deafness later on and often used a wheelchair.

    • Jane says:

      Apparently syphilis is contagious during the primary and secondary stages, but not the third stage, when he married Clara Schumann.

  • Joe says:

    This is an awful post. Schumann did not suffer from syphillis. Nor is it widely accepted, except by those who don’t read

    • Bernard Profitendieu says:

      Joe, baby, Schumann himself wrote about his syphilis treatment. Maybe it’s YOU who doesn’t read.
      Don’t get your undies in a twist over the mention of a securely transmitted disease, granny, half the world had one before antibiotics saved the day (including in your own family, you prudish, little snowflake)

  • Jane says:

    He mentioned it in his diary.