Using historical documents to determine the cause of death of famous people is not as uncommon as you may think. The University of Maryland School of Medicine holds an annual historical clinical pathological conference.
Doctor Frank Arnett, a rheumatologist at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston looked into the death of the man who got the credit for discovering the new world.
This lead over the years to a long, recurring and crippling illness. Dr. Arnett says gout attacks last a week to 10-days and resolve on their own. Reactive arthritis can last for months or years.
Inflamed eyes can be a symptom of scurvy, but Columbus' voyages were not long enough for scurvy to develop. Dr. Arnett also ruled out rheumatoid arthritis because Columbus' hands were not crippled until later development of the illness. He also ruled out diseases endemic to the Mediterranean. While it is not known exactly how Columbus died, Dr. Arnett says it seems realistic to hypothesize he died of complications from a very debilitating reactive arthritis.
In addition to food poisoning sexually transmitted disease can trigger reactive arthritis. With more known about how to keep foods safe and with the increase use of condoms over the last 20-years, Dr. Arnett says reactive arthritis today is very rare. He said when it does develop there is now a drug that can make symptoms disappear within 24-hours.