Frank Ramsey's death


In a new (2020) book about Frank Ramsey by Cheryl Misak, Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers, the author produces a very convincing theory of the cause of Ramsey's death. What we present below uses information taken partly from this book and partly from interviews that Cheryl Misak has given, especially in the Radio 3 programme Free Thinking: Maths and philosophy puzzles broadcast at 22:00 on Wednesday 4 March 2020.


Frank Ramsey died on 19 January 1930 in Guy's Hospital in London. He was very much overweight, as is evident from the following description by Arthur MacIver (an Oxford graduate student who spent the winter term of 1929-30 at Cambridge), written a few weeks before Ramsey became ill:-
Broad was reading a paper to the Moral Science Club in his own room and there was an enormous crowd collected there. An enormous man like a cross between a light-house and a balloon - like a Zeppelin set up on end - who came in with Wittgenstein, I did not at first recognise, but it was Ramsey. Braithwaite was in the chair and is also a large man, but not as large as Ramsey.
Ramsey became ill with what appeared to be jaundice in November 1929. This was a fairly common complaint at the time and it did not raise any alarm either from Ramsey or from his family and friends. Ramsey had married Lettice Cautley Baker in August 1925 in a Registry Office since Ramsey was an atheist. They had two daughters, Jane (1926-2010) and Sarah (1929-1949). Sarah had been born in March 1929 so was only a few months old when her father took ill. A few weeks after Ramsey became ill, Lettice came down with flu and Ramsey moved from his own house to his father's home, which was the house in which he had lived when growing up. His brother Michael, known to the family as 'Mick', came home for Christmas. We should note the fact that Frank Ramsey was a committed atheist but his brother Michael Ramsey was a committed Christian who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. Michael Ramsey, arriving home for Christmas, wrote in his diary that Frank:-
... was in bed with jaundice, poor fellow, and he looked very weak. We talked about the usual sort of topics and argued less than usual. He thought that a lot of unhappiness in the world was caused by 'unsatisfied lust'. I expounded to him the desire 'to contemplate a oneness' and he was tolerant, though he didn't understand. 'Have you had any more success at this trick?' he asked!
By 3 January 1930, Michael Ramsey became concerned about his brother who, he wrote in his diary, 'still looks ill', and he wrote to Lettice partly because he was concerned about her and partly because he was concerned about Frank. Lettice contacted her uncle who was a surgeon at Guy's Hospital in London and he arranged for Frank to be taken by ambulance to Guy's Hospital. Richard Braithwaite (a philosopher who was a Cambridge University Lecturer in Moral Sciences) wrote in a letter:-
Frank Ramsey became ill with what appeared to be simply jaundice in the middle of November. It went on and did not get better, and in January it was decided to operate to remove a small stone or something which was suspected to be stopping up the bile duct. But nothing was found, and instead the whole liver and kidneys were found in a frightful condition, and he died a few days later (without much pain and without believing he was seriously ill). No one thought that he was dangerously ill till three days before his death.
There was a post-mortem and Ramsey's death certificate gives the cause of death as cholangitis, an inflammation of the bile duct system. This, however, now seems unlikely as present understanding of this disease does not match with the length of Ramsey's illness or many of the symptoms he showed. Cheryl Misak explained how she came to the very convincing theory that Ramsey's death was the result of leptospirosis, also known as Weil's Disease:
I did some detective work with two fantastic intellectual physicians. It has been a bit of a mystery how Ramsey died. He clearly had jaundice and he had it for a long time. Then things got very bad and they rushed him by ambulance to Guy's Hospital in London. They thought perhaps it was a stone blocking the bile ducts. There was no stone and when they opened him up they found his liver and kidneys in a frightful mess. People have made all sorts of guesses about the cause. One of these wonderful physicians who is helping me out is an American who was actually on sabbatical at Cambridge. He is a rower and he was told by his cox and the other rowers in the boat not to fall into the river since there's leptospirosis in the Cam. The physician almost capsized the boat thinking "that's it." Leptospirosis is caused by a bacteria that is carried by the urine and faeces of animals and at time it is in the Cam. It fits the disease perfectly in that it is slow and also it affects the kidneys and other organs as well as the liver.

Then my other fantastic physician, when I bounced this theory of him, said "brilliant, it fits the disease course perfectly, but these bacteria don't survive very long in cold water. But the incubation period is well known and that means he would have had to have been swimming in the Cam, which we know he loved, at the end of October. At that time it chilly and the water wouldn't be warm enough for the bacteria to survive.

But now in 2020 you can google 'weather, Cambridge, October 1929' and find that there was front page news of a warm two week spell over all of southern England. So the water would have been warm enough and it was weather for swimming.
Now this looks very convincing, but when we googled 'weather, Cambridge, October 1929' we did not find the paper with the "front page news of a warm two week spell." At first we found that September 1929 was an exceptionally warm month for the UK but October 1929 was very wet and stormy with below average temperatures. Gales started at the beginning of October and by the 6-7th of the month 100 mile an hour winds were recorded with low temperatures. We then discovered that the weekend of 12-13 October, however, did produce the headline in the Daily Herald of 14 October 1929:
JUNE IN OCTOBER. Warm Air from the Region of the Azores. Spring-like weather has persisted over most of Britain during the week-end.
By 18-19th October the weather was cold so the brief warm spell on the weekend of the 12-13th was in the middle of a month of exceptionally wet windy cool weather which continued through until January 1930.

We have no expertise on leptospirosis, nor on how quickly the temperature of the river Cam reacts to the temperature of the air. All we can conclude is that Cheryl Misak's theory adds another interesting suggestion into the discussion of the mystery surrounding Ramsey's death.

Last Updated April 2020