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Saturday, May 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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High blood pressure claimed Booker T. Washington, review finds

The Associated Press

BALTIMORE — Booker T. Washington died of high blood pressure, a review of his medical records has determined, erasing a cloud over the civil-rights leader's death left by one of his doctors more than 90 years ago.

The doctor wrote in 1915 that Washington died of "racial characteristics," an often dismissive term that included high blood pressure but also syphilis.

Washington's records were obtained with the permission of his descendants for a University of Maryland medical conference that looks each year at the cause of death of a historical figure.

Past conferences looked at Alexander the Great, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Florence Nightingale and Edgar Allan Poe.

Washington's records show that his blood pressure was 225 over 145, nearly double the 120 over 80 that is considered normal.

The records also show that a blood test ruled out syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease that was widespread at the time and thought to be a particular problem among black people, said Dr. Philip Mackowiak, the organizer and creator of the University of Maryland conference.

Washington, a former slave who taught himself to read and write, was the first president of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and one of the most prominent black Americans at the turn of the 20th century, advising presidents and philanthropists.

He was admitted to the hospital two weeks before his death at 59, complaining of fatigue, headaches, weight loss and vision problems. He eventually died of kidney failure brought on by high blood pressure, said Dr. Jackson Wright, a professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University, who reviewed the records.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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