Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Was Geronimo Tougher Than Pneumonia?

Iconic Apache warrior Geronimo is famed for his unparalleled toughness on the battlefield, but was he so tough that it took pneumonia over two decades to kill him? An unclear passage from a February 19th article in The New York Times, titled "Geronimo's Heirs Sue Secret Yale Society Over His Skull," seems to suggest that Geronimo, who died in 1909, lived his last 23 years dying of pneumonia while imprisoned.
As you can see in the above screen shot, highlighted for your viewing convenience, the last sentence of the article's eleventh paragraph reads, "He finally surrendered, with only 35 men left, to Gen. Nelson A. Miles on the New Mexico-Arizona border in 1886 and spent the rest of his life in prison, dying of pneumonia." The article and the passage were brought to the attention of the Proofreader by reader Don Martin, who, in an e-mail message, took issue with the vague phrasing of the sentence. Wait, is it even possible for a human to have pneumonia for over 20 years before succumbing?

Yes, in theory. But it's not likely and it has nothing to do with how tough a person is. Geronimo could have been afflicted with some rare, lingering form of pneumonia, bronchitis or other respiratory condition such as bronchiectasis, the symptoms of which can develop very gradually. Or he could have suffered from hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a lung disease that's been known to wax and wane in patients for years.

It's even possible Geronimo suffered from tuberculosis, to which Native Americans are particularly vulnerable, or M kansasii, a chronic pulmonary infection that resembles TB and about which almost nothing was known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. All of these conditions could have easily been mistaken for pneumonia by a doctor determining the cause of Geronimo's death for his death certificate, especially if an autopsy wasn't performed on his corpse. Due to the prevalence of respiratory infections at the time, pneumonia was commonly cited on death certificates, much like "heart attack" is a common cause of death cited on death certificates these days.

Regardless of whether or not Geronimo died a long, slow death from pneumonia or another respiratory condition, the copy in the Times story could have been less vague or even broken into two, more clear sentences. As Times deputy news editor Philip B. Corbett astutely noted in a recent blog post, "periods don't add to the word count."

The Proofreader thanks Sidney K. Stein, M.D. and reader Don Martin for sending in the vague copy.

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