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Absinthe attacks
  1. Philip E M Smith
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr P E M Smith, Consultant Neurologist, The Epilepsy Unit, University Hospital of Wales, Heath Park, Cardiff CF14 4XW, UK;

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VG, a 35 year old right-handed, heavy drinking, unemployed male artist, was admitted to Arles hospital, Provence in December ’88 under the care of Dr Felix Rey. He was agitated, experiencing auditory hallucinations, and had alcohol on his breath. Earlier that evening, he had argued with, and assaulted, his male companion with a razor. Feeling remorse, he had cut a piece from his own left ear, walked to a brothel, and presented a parcel containing his ear to a prostitute friend saying, “Guard this object carefully”: she fainted on seeing the ear and alerted the authorities. Over the following weeks he suffered repeated “madness” episodes, resulting in voluntary transfer to the nearby Saint Rémy asylum (May ’89 – May ’90, Dr Peyron), and thence for three months’ convalescence at Auvers-sur-Oise (Dr Gachet). Shortly after discharge, however, M van Gogh shot himself in the abdomen, and died two days later, on 27 July 1890.


Van Gogh’s most famous painting epitomises his life. Sunflowers, the brightest and most admired of flowers, appear forlorn, faded, cut off, confined, admired fleetingly but with wasted potential, and dying young. Their frantic artisitic creation, one of a series to decorate the Yellow House in Provence for sharing with Gauguin (they lived together for nine weeks), also reflects his own life: “I am working at it every morning from sunrise on, for the flowers fade so soon, and the thing is to do the whole in one rush”.1

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born in Groot-Zundert, Holland in 1853, the son of a Lutherian pastor. He was awkward and temperamental as a child, but was well educated, and became a thoughtful and sincere man, a fervent religious scholar and champion of the downtrodden. He tried teaching in London, ministry in Belgium, and became an artist only …

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