A History of Pernicious Anemia and Psychiatric Misdiagnosis


Katrina Burchell, chief executive officer of the Pernicious Anaemia Society, writes about the history of pernicious anemia, which produces symptoms that are often misdiagnosed as a psychiatric disorder.

First, she defines the physical illness: “What I am not talking about is dietary B12 deficiency but rather the often misdiagnosed and under-treated condition brought about by an auto-immune condition which inhibits the ability of the body to absorb B12 through the traditional digestion route and which leads to cobalamin (B12) deficiency, atrophy of the stomach lining and megaloblastic anaemia (ie your red blood cells are the wrong shape to carry oxygen around your body efficiently).”

Before this disease was identified, those struck by it could end up in asylums. She cites Mary Todd Lincoln as a possible example of this. “Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln probably died of Pernicious Anaemia in 1888. She was institutionalised in a private asylum, tried to commit suicide, she suffered from eyesight problems, falls and damage to her spinal cord, weakness, fatigue, fevers, headaches, gait problems, rapid heartbeat, mouth soreness, swelling, irritability, delusions, and hallucinations. She died aged 63 attributed to heart failure.”

The disease often remains undiagnosed, or poorly treated, and Mad in America knows of people in the United States who suffer from this condition, but it went undiagnosed for years, and, rather than receive the necessary B-12 treatment, instead were diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder and prescribed psychiatric drugs for the condition.

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  1. Mary Lincoln died in 1882, 1888.

    She never went by Mary “Todd” Lincoln but always as Mary Lincoln.

    I’m forty years of Mary Lincoln research, I’ve never heard of her death to be caused by “heart failure,” but always as a stroke with strong contributions of diabetes.

    While the health issues might be debatable, the incorrect death date and the use of Todd, a contemporary identification, are not up for debate.

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