Raoul Dufy’s Rheumatoid Arthritis


Raoul Dufy, one of the most popular painters of the early 20th century, produced more than 6000 paintings that featured themes of happiness, luxury and pleasure. He was one of the first people with rheumatoid arthritis to be treated with cortisone and died from its side effects less than three years after he started the treatment. Rheumatoid arthritis also crippled French impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, seventeenth-century Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, and French singer Edith Piaf.

His Life and Work
Dufy was born in Le Havre, France, the son of a metalworker who played the organ and conducted the choir at a local church. Two of his brothers also became painters, one became an organist and one was a famous flutist and publisher of a musical journal in Paris.

At age 14 Dufy became a stevedore and then worked for a coffee-importing company while taking evening classes to learn painting. He spent a year in the army and at age 24 he won a scholarship to an art school in Paris. At age 25, he had his first art exhibit. He found that he could make more money as an illustrator and commercial artist and painting murals for public buildings. In 1911 he married Eugénie Brisson, and from 1912 to 1928 he was employed as a designer by the Lyons-based Bianchini-Férier firm to make designs on fabrics. By the 1930’s he had developed his own distinctive, beloved painting style. His renowned “La Fee Electricite” (ode to electricity) was a huge fresco completed for the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. In the 1930’s he developed rheumatoid arthritis but kept on painting.

Early Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis
At that time, the chief treatment was gold salt which helped a little bit, but not much more than placebos. In December 1949, Dr. Fred Homburger, a painter himself, saw a picture of Dufy in Life magazine that showed that his hands were so severely deformed by rheumatoid arthritis that he couldn’t use his right hand and had to paint with difficulty only with his left. He couldn’t even stand by himself.

Philip Hench, MD, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, had just published a groundbreaking research paper showing that cortisone may help treat arthritis and he won the Nobel Prize that year for his discovery that cortisone could temporarily relieve the pain of arthritis.

Dr. Homburger worked at the Jewish Memorial Hospital in Roxbury, Massachusetts, which was less than a block away from my home. He wrote a letter to Dufy, telling him that he was doing research on the use of cortisone to treat arthritis. He offered to hospitalize him in his research unit in Boston and include him in his experiments. On April 6, 1950, Dufy accepted his offer by writing: “You bring me today my recompense in offering your art and your science in the alleviation of the pains of my illness.”

Miraculous Cure, Then Disaster
Within days after starting treatment with cortisone, Dufy’s pain miraculously lessened, his appetite improved and he started to eat again. He had enough energy to resume painting and painted a picture that he called “La Cortisone”, demonstrating the impressive improvement in his ability to paint after starting that hormone. He gave it to the company that was developing the drug and to Mayo Clinic Nobel Laureate rheumatologist Dr. Phillip Hench for being the first person to show that cortisone can treat arthritis.

Because his joints hurt less and he could move more, he continued to take cortisone-type drugs for the rest of his life. However, it took cortisone only three years to kill him at age 76 by causing massive bleeding from a stomach ulcer. Cortisones markedly increase the stomach’s production of acid, which burnt a hole in his stomach to cause an ulcer. The stomach ulcer bled profusely, and he lost so much blood that his blood pressure dropped, he went into shock and died. This wonder drug has so many serious side effects that a person should take it only when everything else fails.

How Taking Cortisone Can Kill You
When you are in an accident, have surgery, lose a lot of blood, or do anything else to cause your blood pressure to drop, the adrenal glands produce large amounts of cortisone to constrict the blood vessels and raise your blood pressure to save your life. However, when you take cortisone for a long time, your adrenal glands shut down and stop producing cortisone. Then if your blood pressure drops suddenly for any reason, and your adrenal glands do not produce cortisone to raise your blood pressure, you will go into shock and die. That is why every person who takes cortisones must wear a bracelet that states: “On cortisones. If I am in an accident, give me a shot of cortisone or I may die.”

Benefits and Side Effects of Cortisones
Cortisones are wonder drugs that can dampen your immunity to temporarily stop the pain of arthritis, clear up asthma attacks when everything else fails, temporarily get rid of nasal polyps, and clear up some of the most horrible skin rashes and auto-immune diseases. However, as soon as you stop taking cortisone, your symptoms return. For long-term benefit from cortisone type drugs, you have to keep on taking them.

Side effects of cortisones include fluid retention, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, perforation of small and large bowels, pancreatitis, abdominal distention, nausea, weight gain, ulcerative esophagitis, muscle pain, weakness and loss, osteoporosis, bone fractures, tendon ruptures, insomnia, mood swings, personality changes, depression, convulsions, suppression of growth in children, cataracts, and glaucoma.

Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis Today
Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease that runs in families. A person’s own immunity is so overactive that it attacks and destroys a person’s own joints, muscles and bones. There is strong evidence that some type of infection is involved in starting rheumatoid arthritis, but nobody has consistently isolated any germ to associate it with that disease. Most likely some infection starts the disease and it keeps going long after the germ is gone. Current treatment is to shut down a person’s immunity to stop a person’s immunity from attacking itself. All drugs that suppress immunity are dangerous because they increase risk for infection and cancers.

Raoul Dufy
June 3, 1877 – March 23, 1953

N Engl J Med. 1979 Sep 20;301(12):669-73. The treatment of Raoul Dufy’s arthritis. Homburger F, Bonner CD.