Recent recognition of the importance of Ettore Majorana’s theoretical work has led to increased appreciation of his contribution to the physics community(1). The mysterious disappearance of the 31-year old Majorana in March 1938 has been the subject of intense speculation. Numerous hypotheses for his disappearance have been proposed, including that he 1) committed suicide; 2) entered a monastery; 3) absconded to Argentina; 4) became a homeless person; and 5) was the victim of foul play at the hands of various government agencies.
I propose that there is an intimate link between the health of Ettore Majorana and his behavior, which ultimately contributed to his disappearance and possible death. The key is that Majorana appears to have followed the recommendations of Dr. Bertrand Sippy for the treatment of ulcers by milk and alkali(2). Sippy asserted that gastric acid caused ulcers and that an effective therapy was the diet he recommended. The Sippy regimen was two pronged, consisting of hourly ingestion of dairy products—a mixture of milk and cream - along with hourly ingestion of various alkali powders. Most crucial is the alkali component of the regimen. Sodium bicarbonate is instrumental in maximizing intestinal absorption of calcium. While Sippy originally recommended magnesium oxide along with the sodium bicarbonate, most people could not tolerate the cathartic effects of magnesium, so calcium carbonate was substituted. Given that hourly doses of calcium carbonate could double or triple the amount of calcium being ingested, a daily calcium ingestion of 10-15 g is achievable on this regimen. The major complication of the Sippy treatment is milk-alkali syndrome, which occurs in three forms: acute, subacute and chronic (3). Mental changes, including psychosis. are usually present in the acute and subacute forms and may also be present in the chronic form. The concomitant chronic hypercalcemia frequently results in renal failure. Majorana likely suffered from milk-alkali syndrome, with subsequent psychological effects ultimately attributable to the Sippy regimen.
The following brief timeline illustrates the proposed concordance of Majorana's mental decline as a result of the Sippy treatment. Previously mentally stable, Majorana was noted to be on an all-dairy diet in early 1933 and was on the Sippy regimen long before that time, as evidenced by his apparently erratic behavior. For example, in 1932, Majorana refused to present his hypothesis for the existence of the (Majorana) neutrino and told his mentor Enrico Fermi that Fermi could present the work at a meeting in Paris on the condition that the hypothesis be attrbuted to a fictitious academic.
In early 1933, Majorana spent time with Werner Heisenberg, one of the creators of quantum theory, in Germany. His mental condition deteriorated further and he was a changed man on his return to Italy. Majorana’s family and friends agreed that he was having a nervous breakdown between 1934 and 1937. He became a recluse, staying in his lodgings, and it was noted that during this time he was consulting medical textbooks. Suddenly, towards the end of 1937, Majorana expressed interest in an academic appointment in physics. He accepted a position at the University of Naples, relocating in January 1938. There he began teaching a course in advanced physics, which was attended by a handful of students.
More apparent psychotic behavior ensued. Majorana withdrew his share of funds from a family bank account and all of the salary owed to him by the University. On March 25, 1938, Majorana wrote a letter with suicidal ideation to Professor Carrelli, his boss at the University of Naples. He left a similar brief note to his family and then boarded a night ferry for Palermo, Sicily. Psychotic behavior continued. Majorana checked into the Grand Hotel Sole in Palermo on March 26. He immediately sent a telegram and second letter to Carrelli stating that he had decided against suicide and was returning to Naples, planning to stop teaching. Majorana was never seen again.
The evidence presented above suggests that Majorana suffered from acute and/or subacute milk-alkali syndrome upon his return from Germany in 1933 and was suffering from the chronic form of the syndrome at the time of his disappearance. Majorana probably had episodes of lucidity during his long illness owing to modification of the dairy and alkali ingredients of the Sippy regimen. However, Majorana could not reverse the associated renal failure as he persisted in his ulcer treatment. Once Majorana’s kidneys were irreversibly damaged, the mental symptoms from which he already suffered worsened. While Majorana had lucid episodes in the period from 1934 to 1937, it appears that the added stress of interaction with students resulting from his professorship at the University of Naples and continued use of the Sippy regimen culminated in the series of bizarre acts that occurred just before he vanished on March 26, 1938.
Therefore, a likely outcome of Majorana’s apparent psychotic break in March 1938 was that he died by falling off of the return ferry to Naples, either intentionally or accidentally. However, the hypothesis that he ended up a homeless beggar in Italy, previously thought to be outlandish, cannot be excluded out of hand, owing to his psychosis.
Hypotheses presented concerning the ultimate fate of Ettore Majorana must reckon with his medical issues and the likely outcome resulting from his use of the most widespread and popular treatment of ulcers at the time of his disappearance.
1. Service, RF. Search for Majorana fermions nearing success at last? Science 332: 193-195, 2011.
2. Sippy BW. Gastric and duodenal ulcer: medical cure by an efficient removal of gastric juice corrosion. JAMA 64: 1625-1630, 1915.
3. McMillan DE, Freeman RB. The milk alkali syndrome: a study of the acute disorder with comment on the development of the chronic condition. Medicine 44: 485-501, 1965.
©2015 Ralph Giorno