Do we know what killed Bruce Lee? Yes, and no – and that’s left ample room for speculation as to the real cause
Doctors said the martial arts star died at the age of 32 from a build-up of fluid on the brain, but could not agree on what lay behind it. Was it cannabis? A painkiller? Epilepsy? Theories about what really caused his death still emerge
In a special series commemorating the 45th anniversary of Bruce Lee’s death on July 20, 1973, we aim to set the facts straight – as well as exploring some little known trivia – about the life of the martial arts legend.
Do we know what killed Bruce Lee? The answer is yes and no.
The report from Hong Kong’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital stated that the death of the martial arts superstar on July 20, 1973, at the age of 32, was due to acute cerebral oedema – that is, excess accumulation of fluid in the brain.
The skull is like a rigid box that cannot be stretched; the excess fluid exerts pressure on the brain and therefore hampers the cranial blood flow, and this can lead to brain death. But what caused the cerebral oedema in Lee has never been established.
According to Matthew Polly’s authoritative book Bruce Lee: A Life, there was disagreement about the cause of the cerebral oedema between doctors at the official inquest following Lee’s death
Hong Kong doctors believed that the cerebral oedema could have been brought on by ingesting cannabis – traces of hash were found in Lee’s stomach and intestine at the time of his death.
But no causal link between cannabis and cerebral oedema has ever been documented, and this theory has been dismissed as speculation.
An American doctor said that, based on the available evidence, the cause of the cerebral oedema was unknown and probably unknowable.
A specialist from the UK put forward the theory that the cerebral oedema was caused by a hypersensitivity to the aspirin in the drug Equagesic, a painkiller formed of meprobamate and aspirin.
Actress Betty Ting Pei, who was with Lee when he died in her flat in the city’s Beacon Hill neighbourhood, said she gave Lee an Equagesic pill when he said he had a bad headache, shortly before he died.
However, there was insufficient medical evidence to prove beyond doubt that the drug caused the condition and a verdict of death by misadventure was recorded at the inquest. Neither meprobamate nor aspirin, the two constituents of Equagesic, are known to cause a cerebral oedema.
It is known that Lee had been diagnosed with a cerebral oedema on a separate occasion two months before his death. While he was dubbing lines for Enter the Dragon at film company Golden Harvest’s Hammer Hill Road studios, he ate some hash, felt faint, and went to the bathroom.
Lee fainted in the bathroom, and was helped back to the dubbing studio by a stage hand, where he vomited and fainted again.
Studio boss Raymond Chow drove Lee to hospital, where Dr Peter Wu, a neurosurgeon, diagnosed a cerebral oedema and gave him the drug Mannitol to reduce the swelling.
“Bruce was in a very critical condition,” Wu explains in Polly’s book. “If he had not been brought to the hospital in time, he would have died from severe brain oedema.” Wu told Lee the hash was the cause of the cerebral oedema, but Lee rejected this explanation.
Aside from the lunatic fringe claiming that Lee’s death was caused by ninjas, a “Dim Mak” delayed-death punch, and evil spirits, two more theories about his death have emerged over the years.
One is that Lee suffered sudden unexpected death in epilepsy, a condition that was unknown in 1973. However, there is no record of Lee having suffered from epilepsy.
Polly, in his book, theorises that Lee’s death may have been caused by heatstroke.
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