The Controversial Death of Meriweather Lewis

Patient Expert

The question for today: was Meriwether Lewis of Lewis & Clark fame a man suffering from bipolar disorder (manic-depression)? Or did he commit suicide because he had syphilis, and it made him crazy?

This is not a made-up question, but one of some historical and medico-historical interest. Some biographers (including Stephen Ambrose and filmmaker Ken Burns) have said that it is most likely Lewis's suicide five years after his return from the great expedition was due to a long-standing depression and his return to alcohol from which, during the trek across country, he had mainly abstained.

Others, including some medical authorities, insist that Lewis - like the men who accompanied him across country - had partaken of sexual favors from Indian women infected with venereal disease.

While this may seem a false dichotomy (after all, if syphilis can make you crazy - and it can - it could have been a physiological cause of Lewis's depression; or, Lewis could have had syphilis before going West, and - knowing it - he could have been depressed) it has caused quite some controversy and people have taken strong stands.

The issue seems to be: if Lewis killed himself because he was crazy from neuro-syphilis, then he was guilty of wanton sexuality. If he killed himself because he was a lifelong depressive or manic-depressive, then some people feel that makes him less of a hero.

And that's the issue for today.

A physician who has put forward the neuro-syphilis death suggests that Lewis would have been less of a man if he let a little thing like depression get him down; that the explorer who conquered the West and found a route to the Pacific was too much a man to kill himself because of depression.

If I read this doctor correctly, the suggestion is a) that depression is a "little thing"; b) that Lewis would have had a choice as to whether to kill himself or not. From experience with people who had medicated themselves with alcohol, and people who have killed themselves, it is clear that "choice" is a very sticky word. If no one is around to intervene; if a support system isn't available; and if - as was the case in Lewis's time - neither psychotherapy nor medication was available, then in some way he had no choice. If he was deeply depressed and the excitement and challenge of conquering new lands was long behind him, suicide might have seemed the only answer: a kind of "postpartum depression," as Ambrose suggests.

More importantly, from my point of view, to suggest that Lewis was "less of a man" and "without courage" because he killed himself; or to suggest that serious depression isn't a terrible burden is - in my view - a bizarre ignorance in this day and at this time.