Descartes Was Murdered… Or Was He? The Death Of Rene Descartes: Odd Histories

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Difficulty: A-Level

  1. Introduction
  2. Natural death was the official story.
  3. Pneumonia doesn’t explain skin pigmentation… but arsenic does.
  4. Poisoned to protect the queen.
  5. Evidence of tumor… but was it Descartes’ skull?


Rene Descartes is one of the most famous philosophers within the Western philosophical canon, contributing to many areas of philosophy such as metaphysics, philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. However, his fame does not arise from his philosophical works alone. He also provides one of the most controversial deaths within the philosophy world. Not even Descartes could have predicted that, when he passed away in Stockholm in 1950 at the age of 53, that the theories around his death would mainly focus on murder…

Natural death was the official story.

Initially, when concerning the official story provided by the court, Descartes death looked to be down to natural causes. The physician to examine the body declared Descartes had died of pneumonia. It seemed a likely cause. Descartes had been treating the Ambassador to France for it one week before and it is argued that Descartes may not have been used to the Swedish winter. Even within his writings, Descartes commented on the cold Nordic weather and the fact he was struggling with it.

Pneumonia doesn’t explain skin pigmentation… but arsenic does.

However, there are some problems with this manner of death. The largest challenge to the pneumonia theory is founded in a letter written by Johann Van Wullen, who was the private doctor of the queen. Eike Pies found the letters as they were written to a relative of his. While he diagnosed Descartes with pneumonia, he noted some odd symptoms which did not align with the condition. This included increased skin pigmentation and blood in the urine, symptoms which are often associated with arsenic poisoning. The physician was also not allowed to examine the body properly, including bleeding the body. Thus, Pies concluded that Descartes had in fact been poisoned.

Poisoned to protect the queen.

After discovering this evidence in 1980, the prevailing theory was that Descartes was poisoned by an unknown Protestant vicar. Descartes was raised a Catholic. However, Stockholm had undergone a bloody battle to convert to Protestantism. With Descartes being in charge of the Queen’s education, it was feared that he would cause her to revert to Catholicism. Thus, he had to be gotten rid of and this was done through poisoning him.

Theodore Ebert took this in almost a contradictory direction. After reviewing the evidence available, Ebert argued that Descartes was poisoned by Jacques Viogue, a missionary in Stockholm. Viogue believed that Queen Christina was considering converting to Catholicism due to her Catholic tendencies. However, he saw Descartes as a barrier to this. While Descartes was raised a Catholic, Viogue saw his metaphysical picture as more Calvenist. Thus, he decided to poison Descartes in order to stop him influencing the queen not to convert.

Evidence of tumor… but was it Descartes’ skull?

One final argument of how Descartes died is provided by Phillipe Charlier. His conclusions derived from an examination of Descartes’ ‘skull,’ which resides at Paris’ National Museum of Natural History. While doing the examination, Charlier discovered evidence of a sinus tumor. This account is problematic on two accounts. Firstly, Descartes never reported symptoms of a sinus tumor within his writing. Secondly, no one knows exactly where Descartes skull is. There are multiple museums claiming they have Descartes’ skull as it was removed from the skeleton at an unknown point in history. Theories of where the skull is will be covered in a future blog post, but it is safe to say that analyzing a ‘skull’ said to be Descartes is not convincing evidence.

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