"Jack London Dies Suddenly On Ranch
Novelist Is Found Unconscious from
Uremia, and Expires After Eleven Hours"
– New York Times
November 23, 1916
"A controversy that will probably never be settled concerns the cause of Jack London's death. A few biographers have been guilty of coming to published conclusions without having done adequate research—or, in some cases, without having had access to vital information in the hands of the Jack London Estate or in the extensive collections of London material at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California and the Utah State University Library at Logan, Utah.
My own research leads me to believe that Jack London could not have committed suicide. I have no doubt that, had he wanted to do so, he would have. He always believed that a man had that right. However, the manner in which some suggest Jack died would have been completely out of character for him. Had they said, "He inadvertently took an overdose of morphine, which in combination with his uremic condition triggered a coma and subsequent death," we would have to admit to that possiblity, since no one was present at the time. The fact that his own physcian, Dr. William S. Porter, head of Merritt Hospital in Oakland, California, was with him at the time of death and that three other doctors who were there agreed with his diagnosis carries significant weight. I have chosen to accept the medical judgement of the four competent doctors who were present at the time of death.
On the morning of November 22, 1916 Sekine, Jack's house boy, tried to awaken Jack at 7:45. Failing to get a response, Sekine rushed up to Eliza's house to get her to come, it being an ironclad rule that Charmian never be awakened because of her terrible insomnia. At 8:10 Charmian was called. Since the telephone was out of order, Jack's secretary, Jack Byrne, rushed to Sonoma to get a doctor. He returned with Dr. A. M. Thomson, who diagnosed Jack's condition as an overdose of morphine. Phone service restored, Dr. Thomson called his assistant, Dr. W. B. Hayes, for an antidote for morphine poisoning and a stomach pump. The Sonoma druggist, Mr. Simmons, prepared the antidote.
Jack's personal physician, Dr. Porter, was called to come from Oakland. Jack's friend, Dr. J. W. Shiels arrived at noon, and Dr. Porter in midafternoon.
The four doctors tried to arouse Jack from his coma. They lifted him to his feet, walking him throughout the day. They yelled that the dam had burst in hopes that something alarming would break through to him. Nothing worked. Once or twice during the day Jack seemed to respond, but soon lapsed back into coma.
In a letter to Irving Stone in 1936, Thomson said that he reached the ranch around eight o'clock and found Jack lying doubled up in bed with his head thrown forward. Propped up on pillows, he breathed stertorously, his face bluish black. He was totally unconcious. Dr. Thomson had found a morphine bottle and counted the number of grains of morphine that Jack might have taken. 'If he had taken 12 ½ grains early in the evening, he would have been dead. If he had been accustomed to morphine, had a tolerance for it,' said Dr. Thomson, 'he might have lasted; but if he had not been taking it, he wouldn't have lasted four hours.' Dr. Thomson went on to say that he knew immediately it was morphine poisoning, and went to work with artificial respiration. He gave Jack 50cc of atropine.
When Dr. Porter arrived, he immediately changed the diagnosis and treated Jack for what he had expected would be the terminal situation of ravaging uremia for which he had been treating Jack for the last three years. Jack had taken morphine as any patient would who had renal colic. It was highly possible that in the throes of his terrible suffering he had taken extra doses of the morphine prescription given him by Dr. Porter to ease his agony. It was possible that the extra morphine was a contributory factor, but the coma was induced by retention of bodily poisons his inoperative kidneys could no longer release.
It is understandable that Dr. Thomson erred in his diagnosis. Seeing Jack in a coma and a morphine vial on the floor with only four tablets remaining, he concluded that Jack had taken an overdose, an opinion based on circumstances rather than medical evidence. He had no knowledge of Jack's kidney trouble and made the only decision possible at the time. After Dr. Porter explained Jack's medical history, Thomson revised his diagnosis and signed the joint press release with the other three doctors.
During his last two years Jack's health had declined rapidly. Stomach disturbances, rheumatic edema in his ankles, sporadic melancholia, dysentery, and dull headaches were not uncommon. At times he became argumentive and he would debate to win rather than for debates sake alone.
Very few people noticed the change. One of them who did was Finn Froelich, who noted, 'He didn't do the sporting things he used to do, wrestle, play, didn't want to go up into the mountains riding horseback anymore. The gleam was gone from his eyes.' George Sterling and other close friends were aware that he was not the same Jack London. They erroneously attributed this to excessive drinking. Actually Jack was drinking less and less. His condition was caused by the ravages of uremia. And the death certificate signed by Dr. A. M. Thomson, Dr. W. B. Hayes, and Dr, J. Wilson Shiels stated that the cause of Jack London's death was 'Uraemia following renal colic. Duration one plus days. Contributor chronic Interstitial Nephritis. Duration three years.'
– Russ Kingman A Pictorial Life of Jack London
|My Daddy Did Not Kill Himself|
|By Becky London|
|"Far too many biographies have been written that my father killed himself. This I have always refused to believe. I have what is proof to me that he did not. I knew Daddy was seriously ill in November of 1916. He refused to admit it and carried on his regular life as usual. He sufferd a great deal of pain and there is a possibility that he did take an overdose – by accident. However, Dr. Porter whom I knew personally, and who gave me away at my wedding, signed the death certificate – cause: Uremic Poisoning.
My proof is this: Daddy never lied to Joan and me and the last thing he did that Tuesday night was to write us arranging to spend the following Sunday in Oakland. He put the letter with the rest of the outgoing mail before he retired. It was picked up early Wednesday morning by one of the ranch hands, a regular duty, and delivered to the Glen Ellen post office long before Daddy was found in a coma later that Wednesday morning November 22, 1916. This letter is quoted in Letters From Jack London, edited by King Hendricks and Irving Shepard. It is the very last letter in the book."
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