Did Stephen Ambrose Sanitize Meriwether Lewis’s Death?


Dr. Ravenholt, president of Population Health Imperatives, served as director of the Office of Population in the U.S. Agency for International Development (1966-1979). He is the author of “Triumph Then Despair: The Tragic Death of Meriwether Lewis,” Epidemiology (May 1994).

Upon publishing my finding of neurosyphilis as the probable underlying cause of the death of Meriwether Lewis in 1809, I sent a copy to Stephen Ambrose and soon received this reply:

Helena, MT, June 22, 1994. Dear Dr Ravenholt, Thanks for the article. I had heard about it and intended to get it - I've just returned from a month in Europe. I have questions. What was the standard treatment for syphilis? Did the liberal use of mercury for men with vd have any effect upon syphilis? What percentage of those who contract syphilis recover from it? What percentage die? How long, usually, from infection to death? How do symptoms differ from malaria? That is a backward way of saying, couldn't malaria (which we know Lewis had) be as likely a diagnosis as syphilis? I'm not trying to deny that Lewis could have had syphilis. I am fascinated by his sex life, or absence thereof. As a Virginia planter, I think the possibility strong that he took Negro girls whenever and wherever. But as you note neither Lewis or Clark ever indicates anything but rejection of women offered by the Indians, although they are very free in describing the actions of the men. York especially. It seems hardly possible that two young, verile men could have remained celibate with all that flesh being offered to them. And what about the booze? Can't moonshine make you crazy? Beyond that, are not Lewis's symptoms in the last two years of his life compatible with a diagnosis of alcoholism? I hope you find time in your busy life to scribble down some short answers. Right now I have Lewis about to depart from the Mandans for the trek across the plains and mountains. It will be a couple of months before I get to the night of August 13, 1805. When I write it up I want to get it right. My mind is open. Another question: could you do a bit of speculation on when Lewis wrote that Aug. 13 entry? In the morning is the way it reads, but he wqas terribly busy that morning. That evening? During the winter at Fort Clatsop? The quotation you got from Frenchy Chuinard (p. 378, bottom of first column and top of second) is spurious. Lewis never was a boyfriend of Theodosia. That is all fiction. Thanks for sending me the article. I'll certainly be using it in my biography.

Sincerely, Stephen Ambrose.

Despite the above letter, in his book, Undaunted Courage Ambrose accorded only two dismissive sentences to my finding of neurosyphilis as the underlying cause:

A suggestion has been made that Lewis's mental problems stemmed not from hypochondria, as Jefferson would have it, or a manic depressive syndrome, but from the effects of an advanced case of syphilis. It is more intriguing and speculative than convincing. (p. 467).

He wrote thus despite stating on page 292," 'brakings out or irruptions of the skin,' probably caused by venereal disease contracted from the Shoshone women." -- while artfully omitting from this sentence the key diary clause by Lewis:"brakings out or irruptions of the skin have been common with us for some time" -- tantamount to Lewis writing that he had syphilis.

It seems that upon reading my article, Ambrose was considerably impressed that Lewis probably did suffer from neurosyphilis; but as he researched and wrote toward his hero book, he no doubt found it increasingly awkward to mention that Lewis had developed syphilis.

By avoiding the diagnosis of syphilis, which fits perfectly well with all the evidence (as attested to by a consensus of expert physician/epidemiologists), and attributing Lewis's suicide to"depression" and"manic depression," Ambrose unfortunately impugns Lewis's strength of mind and courage by implying that he was such a weak character that he would self-destruct simply because he was psychologically depressed -- despite being at the peak of his accomplishments and fame and being Governor of Upper Louisiana Territory! It is no more an adequate answer to the question of why Lewis committed suicide than to explain that a man frozen to death died"because he got too cold"!

Of course, Lewis was deeply depressed -- as any man would be, if suffering successive attacks of syphilitic brain fever and seeing his mind and life slipping away. The diagnosis of neurosyphilis answers many associated questions perfectly well:

  • Why Lewis and comrades suffered"brakings out or irruptions of the skin" five weeks after having partied with Shoshone women during two nights,13-14 August 1805; and why after 19 September he became so seriously ill during some weeks and ceased writing in the diaries during three months?
  • Why Lewis and Clark remained six weeks in St Louis after returning thereto 23 September 1806 -- instead of hurrying on during favorable October weather to report to eagerly awaiting President Jefferson and the U.S. Congress? A likely explanation is that Lewis and others having contracted syphilis on the expedition, needed to undergo a month-long course of treatment with mercury, etc, under the care of Dr Antoine Saugrain, an able French physician friend of Lewis employed by the U.S. Army there.

  • Why Lewis was ill and incapacitated while living with Jefferson in the White House, January-March 1807; and why Lewis was unable to advance his highest-priority task -- the writing of a book on expedition experiences and findings -- in Philadelphia, April-July 1807, and in Virginia that fall?

  • Why he remained in Albemarle, Virginia with his mother the following winter -- when he should have been in St Louis handling his duties as Governor of the Louisiana Territory?

  • Why his financial and general good judgment capability rapidly deteriorated in St Louis during 1808-9, leading to his distressed departure on a riverboat on 4 September 1809?

  • Why he suffered febrile attacks with extreme disorientation and twice attempted suicide en route to Chickasaw Bluffs (Memphis); and why he committed suicide at Grinder's Stand on the Natchez Trace on October 11th ?

From their reactions to his death, it is apparent that family and closest friends knew why Lewis killed himself. And when we now realize that he was suffering the ultimate agony of advancing neurosyphilis -- losing his mind and verging on utter madness -- we can truly sympathize with him and fully admire his ultimate courage in facing the facts squarely and self-destructing on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee on October 11th, to protect his reputation and his family and friends.

Some readers will dislike the thought that Meriwether Lewis died of neurosyphilis, but others will mourn anew, with greater understanding, admiration, and compassion, this heroic leader who, I believe, died an agonizingly tragic death from an infection acquired in the line of duty while on a difficult and dangerous mission for his president and his country.

Historians differ in their motivational genre: some mainly seeking to burnish recognized icons; others everlastingly seeking to lift the veil of time to discover new facts and relationships and insights into the lives and activities of interesting characters, leaders, events, and epochs -- no matter if unsettling to some traditionalists.

The published reactions of Stephen Ambrose, Ken Burns, Gary Moulton and Clay Jenkins to my finding of syphilis as the underlying cause of death for Meriwether Lewis, indicate they are of the first genre. Perhaps additional incontrovertible DNA evidence for Lewis having had syphilis may yet emerge from skeletal remains; but for experienced medical scientists, the current evidence for neurosyphilis as the underlying cause of Lewis/s death seems reliably strong.

Readers interested in more information about Meriwether Lewis's medical history can consult Dr. Ravenholt's website, www.ravenholt.com. Look for the article titled,"Trail's End for Meriwether Lewis: The Role of Syphilis."

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Manic Depression News and Discussion Forum

HNN - 12/31/2005

I am a descendent of the Lewis/aka Meriwether Lewis family...amongst the many who belong in this particular gene pool/surnames/genealogy (Cosby, Anderson, Overton, Dickerson, Dickenson, Reade, Massie, Waters, Garland and other early colonial Virginia families, et al.).

There are many who suffer from unipolar and bipolarism within my ancestral line but all are being helped and lead normal lives thanks to today's anti-depressants and for some, mood stabilizers. Thank heavens for the pharaceutical breakthroughs of the last 40 years.

During Lewis' time, aside from herbal remedies, diet, most self medicated with alcohol. Many still self medicate today with alcohol and other drugs (street drugs) and do not seek help or do not know what is wrong with them.

Within my own direct Lewis line family, it is bipolar II-more depression than mania, myself included. I lead a normal, productive life thanks to medication.

In reading about Lewis' behavior and looking through his notes, I would say he was a Bipolar I..very high highs and very low lows...grandiose, highly sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others to an excess possibly causing undo worry and paranoia. Bipolar II's also have this high sensitivity too, but unlike Bipolar I's, most are able to recognize these situations as a chemical imbalance, rather than a situational problem.

From the view of forensic psychology, Lewis abuse of alcohol, laudanum (opiate derivative), paying out of money to cover the gov'ts costs to native Americans, debt, irritability, talking to himself and inability to sleep, thinking grandiose thoughts at an early age (ie stating he wanted to find the way to the Pacific in his youth), I can't help but believe he did indeed suffer from Bipolar I. Most Bipolar I's don't even know what they are doing when they are in a total manic stage...and their depression, while just as painful as anyone else who suffers from depression, can lead to a catatonic state.

Depression just isn't a condition, it hurts physically. I would never wish this chemical imbalance on anyone. And as most of you realize, it certainly does lead to suicide in many cases, especially impulsive suicide.

I can understand why Thomas Jefferson tried to keep Meriwether Lewis in desk jobs. To have some sort of normalcy, day in and out, a regiment, is something bipolars, especially Bipolar I's, need..but unless they are properly medicated (which Lewis was not)...this type of job can be a constant frustration...leading eventually to the downward spirally of mood or even paranoia and manic or depressive behaviors. Talking to oneself can be a part of it, if it is done constantly.

This of course is strictly supposition based on his papers, what others who have written about him, and what I know of the genetics of this familiy's history.

Of course, the real answer lies, which we don't have, in the bones and/or remains of Lewis. A forensic pathologist could certainly answer the key question, "Could Lewis have shot himself?" And, the autopsy done over 100 years ago is not all that forthcoming and is lacking. We could possibly harvest some DNA from hair foliicles or bone marrow, or however his body is preserved in his grave. A DNA test could check Chromosome 6 and 8 to see whether or not he did have the genetic markers for bipolarism. However, that still wouldn't prove he was a Bipolar (manic-depressive), but it would tell us he had the tendency to have the disorder if the markers were present.

Once again, I believe he was..I believe he committed suicide, and it wasn't murder.

Most sincerely,
J. Robinson
BA, MA Applied Anthropology

Barry J Troy - 9/9/2005

Syphilis also explains the single most puzzling thing about Lewis's life: his utter inability to court a woman.

Here is a guy who is attractive, charismatic, powerful, wealthy and famous beyond belief. He was the equivalent of a JFK Jr. or Apollo astronaut (maybe all that rolled into one). How could his attempts at courtship have universally ended in utter failure? Syphilis is among the very few things that could explain it.

Zoh Pemble - 11/6/2003

After some thought, I'd like to appologize for over-reacting.

With tenderness and respect,


Ola Isacson - 11/5/2003

Ambrose just wanted attention, and he speculated a lot. Trust the old sources instead. Cape Disappointment was already on George Vancouver´s maps, nothing new under the sun.

I citate from another link below: http://www.uiowa.edu/~ournews/2003/september/093003lewis-suicide.html

While his psychological assessment of Lewis points strongly to suicide, Westefeld [University of Iowa counseling psychology professor John S. Westefeld and graduate student Aaron Less have produced "Meriwether Lewis: Was it Suicide?"] says he still can't rule out murder as a possibility. Grinder's Stand was located along the Natchez Trace, a passageway that some historians say was home to bandits and outlaws who frequently committed robbery and violence. And money was reported missing from Lewis' trunk.

Scot Brannon - 7/15/2003

Dr. Ravenholt--

Well, you've almost convinced me that Meriwether Lewis died from syphilis contracted during a night of partying with Shoshone women. But to say he "died an agonizingly tragic death from an infection acquired in the line of duty" is a little like saying that Falstaff died a tragic death from excess drink taken in the service of the king. We love Falstaff, but his death is as much absurdity as tragedy. That's why it's poignant. He's like us.

Let Lewis be Falstaff. Don't join with Stephen Ambrose and try to make him into Prince Hal.

Laurie Winn Carlson - 4/12/2002

Malarial fevers were used to treat syphilis prior to the invention of penicillin. Malarial fevers, called quartan fevers, were actually induced as a curative for syphilis. That might mean that if indeed Lewis had syphilis, his malaria, which developed in St. Louis, may have "cured" it. I'll quote from Roy Porter's The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, "The consequences of bacterial infections for brain function were identified, beginning with syphilis, and Julius Wagner-Jaureg (1857-1940) discovered that counter-infection with malaria was effective against general paresis of the insane." p. 520. I think Wagner-Jaureg even received a Nobel for his work.

Laurie Winn Carlson
Cheney, Washington

Joan Neuberger - 4/10/2002

I don't know whether Lewis had syphillis or a mental illness like depression or manic depression, but I wish the author had as much understanding of neurological, "mental" illnesses and compassion for those who suffer from them as he does for people with syphillis. Suicide is anything but a lack of "courage" and the experience of depression is never "simple." Suicide is a terrible symptom of a terrible, painful neurological disease. People who suffer from manic depression, or bipolar disorder as it is often called now, can suffer from episodes of devastating depression when it appears to the rest of the world that they are on top of the world. All of Lewis's "strength of character" would be no match for a bio-chemical imbalance that produces depression so dark that it extinguishes all hope. Whether Lewis committed suicide from the despair of depression or to protect his and his family's reputation, he was undoubtedly in great pain
either way.