The tragic death of Srinivasa Ramanujan

When people die young, it's almost always a tragedy. It becomes even worse when they died of something that may have been prevented. He is perhaps unknown to many in the West — less so by people not mathematically-inclined – but Srinivasa Ramanujan died of something easily curable at a young age.

Ramanujan was a brilliant mathematician who made substantial contributions to mathematical analysis. Growing up under British rule in India, he did not have much formal mathematical training beyond what was taught in the schools, writes Wired. He began researching math formulae, possibly including some of the hardest ones to solve, in hopes of getting scholarships to continue his math education. In the meantime, he took a job as a clerk with the Port of Madras.

In 1913, at the age of 25, Ramanujan wrote a letter that changed his life. He wrote down a formula he was working on about the distribution of prime numbers, says Wired, and sent it to Cambridge University mathematician G.H. Hardy. At first Hardy thought it was a practical joke but he was impressed by Ramanujan's ability and invited the young clerk to Cambridge, according to St. Andrews University. In England, Ramanujan began working on analytical theories on numbers like infinity and continued fractions.

But it was also England where his health problems started.

Misdiagnosis of a workaholic

Ramanujan arrived in England in 1914 when the nation was fighting in World War I. As a strict vegetarian, food rationing meant meals were hard to come by. A study published by the Royal Society of London mentioned Ramanujan often forgot to eat because he was so engrossed in his work. He got sick in May 1917 and went to a sanatorium to recover. He continued to work on formulae while there By 1919, the war was over and Ramanujan was free to return to India, per Wired.

Things got worse when he got home. Doctors in Mumbai (then called Bombay) diagnosed Ramanujan with tuberculosis and vitamin deficiency. He was coughing a lot, was very thin, and had bouts of fever. Unfortunately, his health kept deteriorating and he died in 1920 at the age of 32. Researchers pored over his medical records and letters to figure out what he was sick with, according to the Royal Society of London. Looking through the evidence, they concluded Ramanujan had hepatic amoebiasis, an infection of the gastrointestinal tract that is curable. This is not the same amoeba that attacks brains

Ramanujan's death could have been prevented if he was diagnosed correctly and if he was taking care of himself. But his singular passion for math made him focused on the work to ignore everything else. He may not be that famous outside of math circles but in India, he is revered. Stamps bearing his face were issued and prizes were named in his honor. In 2016, Dev Patel starred in a biopic of Ramanujan called The Man Who Knew Infinity.