When Benjamin Franklin died on April 17, 1790, he was widely mourned. He was a statesman, scientist and writer who contributed to the American Enlightenment and revolution and helped found the United States.

When his coffin was escorted to Christ Church, it was followed by politicians and scientists, printers and members of the American Philosophical Society that Franklin founded. Absent from the procession were President George Washington and Congress.

Causes of Death

The conventional wisdom is that the Franklin marriage was doomed from the start, and that Deborah was jilted by her genius husband who promised to be back in a few months but ended up staying away for more than 11 years. But there is more to this story than a couple who couldn’t abide one another.

Certainly, the members of the Society felt that the time had come to pay a public tribute to Franklin. They voted that a eulogy should be prepared by “one of their Members, to be pronounced before this Body.”

When the Society’s committee drew names for the honor, Rittenhouse and Smith were among those most eligible to do so. Both had been vice presidents of the Society and zealous contributors to its work. But the Society’s decision fell to Smith, a man who had opposed American independence as illusory and ruinous and who was still bitterly hostile to Franklin and his politics.

Smallpox

Franklin was a big proponent of the inoculation process (precursor to vaccines) introduced by Cotton Mather. The procedure involved injecting fluid from a smallpox blister into a healthy person. While the procedure did carry a 2% chance of death it was much safer than catching smallpox and risking severe scarring or blindness.

In colonial America a large percentage of those who caught the disease died, and even more would have permanent scars covering most or all of their body. The virus was also highly contagious.

It’s not clear why Franklin decided not to inoculate his son during the smallpox epidemic that struck Philadelphia. Perhaps he thought his son was too sick. He’d suffered from a flux that made him very weak. Or maybe he didn’t want to take the risk. Whatever the reason, he and Deborah did not inoculate their child and Franky died from the disease. Franklin regretted this decision for the rest of his life.

Pleurisy

A person with pleurisy has inflamed layers of the lungs (pleura). The pleura are large sheets of tissue that separate the lungs from the chest wall. The pleura usually have a small amount of fluid between them. This fluid acts like pieces of smooth satin gliding together, allowing the lungs to expand and contract with breathing.

One symptom of pleurisy is sharp pain that comes with breathing. Another is a cough that produces thick mucus. Some people have a fever, too.

A doctor can diagnose pleurisy by doing a physical examination and asking about recent and general medical history. The doctor may use a device called a stethoscope to listen for a rough sound as the inflamed pleural membranes rub against each other during breathing. This sound is called a pleural friction rub. The doctor may also order a chest X-ray to see whether air or fluid has built up in the lungs and chest.

Cancer

In 1785, Benjamin Franklin died of a cancer that sprang from his abscessed lungs. It is thought that the virus was a carcinogen deposited from smoking tobacco, and that his ancestors as Ashkenazi Jews had a hereditary predisposition to it.

In his later years Franklin was a prolific writer and public speaker. He founded the US Postal Service and is credited with establishing the first lending library.

He was also a brilliant scientist and an accomplished printer. The famous experiment in which he flew a kite during a thunderstorm demonstrated the connection between lightning and electricity.

Rosalind Franklin also made significant contributions to chemistry. Her X-ray photos of A DNA provided data crucial to the discovery of DNA’s structure, although Francis Crick and James Watson ultimately discovered it. The reason that Franklin’s X-ray photos weren’t as clear-cut in showing the helix shape of DNA was that they were taken from A DNA, and not B DNA.

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