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How did Andy Warhol Die?

On the anniversary of Andy Warhol's death the New York Times published an article on February 22, 2017 by Blake Gopnik in which Gopnik comments on a telephone interview he conducted with retired surgeon Dr. John Ryan. (Pop art expert Hal Foster is Dr. Ryan's brother-in-law.) Gopnik is currently writing a biography of Andy Warhol. The Times article was later picked up by the Daily Mail in the U.K. and the Huffington Post.

In the article Dr. Ryan claims that the gallbladder surgery Warhol had just before he died, was "major surgery" in a very "sick person." Previously, Andy Warhol's operation had been described as "routine."

Presumably, references to Warhol's gallbladder surgery as being "routine" in other accounts meant that the operation was routine for a healthy person. Nowadays, the same operation usually only requires an overnight stay in hospital and even back then it usually only entailed a hospital stay of 3 - 5 days.

But Warhol had previous health problems, as detailed in the Gopnik article. Most of the details about Warhol's health mentioned in the article are already known - such as the extensive nature of Warhol's wounds after being shot by Valerie Solanas (more on Solanas here), and that he had to wear girdles for the rest of his life as a result of being shot. The article also mentions that Warhol was reticent about being hospitalized - something which Bob Colacello has also written about in his book on Warhol, Holy Terror.

In the February 22nd article, it is also mentioned that Andy Warhol had "for years been taking a daily dose of speed." Although it was noted in Popism that Warhol claimed to take a "fourth of a diet pill," the main evidence we've had so far that Warhol took pharmaceutical "speed" were comments made by some of his colleagues - particularly Bob Colacello and Brigid Berlin. (See here.)

According to David Bourdon, Warhol's death had to do with over-hydration. In his biography of Warhol, he writes, "According to later reports, the hospital's medical and nursing staffs neglected to look in on him periodically and to monitor his intravenous fluid intake and urinary output. No one adequately supervised the private-duty nurse, whose incomplete notes failed to record the patient's blood pressure, pulse rate, and other vital signs, as well as his dosages of morphine and other medications. As a result, Warhol's over hydration went unnoticed."

Bourdon's claim is probably based on the reports of a court case that was brought by Warhol's estate against the hospital after he died. The New York Times reported, "The [estate's] lawyer, Bruce Clark, said that New York Hospital negligently pumped more than twice the required volume of fluids into Mr. Warhol when he underwent gallbladder surgery five years ago and that the resulting internal pressure caused his death from heart failure."

From Ronald Sullivan, "Care Faulted in the Death of Warhol," New York Times, December 5, 1991:

"He (Warhol) was 5 feet 11 inches tall but he only weighed 128 pounds," Mr. Clark said. He was anemic and undernourished, but his doctor said in his admitting papers that he was in "good" health. "His undernourished body had a capacity of from 3 to 4 quarts of blood," he continued, "but they kept pumping fluids into him without making sure anything was coming out and then they increased the intake."

That article also mentions that Warhol's personal doctor indicated that the artist was in "good" health when he was admitted into hospital.

Over-hydration could have put a strain on the heart but so could the operation, itself. There could also have been other factors. The cause of death mentioned in some reports was "ventricular fibrillation" which causes cardiac arrest. According to the American Heart Association the main causes of ventricular fibrillation are the lack of proper blood flow to the heart muscle or damage to the heart muscle from a heart attack, cardiomyopathy, problems with the aorta, drug toxicity or sepsis. (See here.) But Warhol was not known to have any of these conditions.

In regard to the wounds inflicted by Solanas in 1968, it is true that they were extensive but Warhol also had a private coach and managed to exercise fairly regularly. He weighed about 10 pounds less than the optimum weight for a man of his height, but that would certainly have been healthier than being 10 pounds over-weight. The estate's lawyer conflated body fluids with blood capacity but they are two different things. It is suprising, however, that the hospital did not monitor his fluids (if that, indeed, was the case) as this is standard procedure for hospitals. They do it for all patients, so I'm not sure why they would not do it for Warhol. In regard to the pharmaceutical "speed" he was alleged to have taken, amphetamine-based drugs are often given to people with behavioural conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder without causing long-term physical problems. (This includes amphetamine-based drugs prescribed to children with ADD who are over 6 years old, such as Dexedrine.)

The hospital settled out of court with Warhol's estate for $3 million. As the hospital settled out of court, it's unknown how much of a factor over-hydration was in regard to the cardiac arrest which ultimately killed the artist. The money from the estate's lawsuit against the hospital went to Warhol's two brothers (less the legal fees) as part of a deal to guarantee that the brothers would not contest Andy's will in which he left them $250,000.00. See here.

Gary Comenas
February 2017