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Medical historian looks back on role of opiates, personal physician in Elvis’ death

Elvis Presley
Many other artists have died from an overdose of opioids, prescribed by a personal physician


On Thursday, August 16 we lost the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. But for countless Elvis fans, last Thursday was already a date marked by tragedy. 

On that day in 1977, the world learned that Elvis Presley had passed away. 


Dr. Howard Markel is a University of Michigan medical historian and PBS contributor. He joined Stateside’s Cynthia Canty to discuss what exactly caused Elvis’ death. 

Many forget Elvis Presley was only 42 years old when he died. 

“If you remember the later Elvis, he was blotted and fat and sweaty and he wore those jumpsuits — those sequined jumpsuits— but he was a mere shadow of the beautiful, beautiful man they used to call Elvis the Pelvis,” Markel said. 

On August 16, 1977, Elvis’ finance, Ginger Alden, found him in his bathroom at Graceland. He was pronounced dead at 3:30 that afternoon at Baptist Memorial Hospital, which Markel said was chosen for its discretion. 

“He had his own doctor, George Nichopoulos, and (at) the Baptist hospital the doctors would do what they were told as opposed to a much closer hospital where they were a little bit more blabby.”

Markel said the autopsy was most interesting. It was only two hours long, much shorter than the average length, with three doctors involved. According to Merkel, one doctor — on his own without the other's consent— declared that Elvis had died of a cardiac arrhythmia and that there were no drugs involved.  

“The other two doctors eventually said, 'Well, there were drugs involved.' A few weeks later when the toxicology screen came back it was filled with various opiate drugs as well as quaaludes and antihistamines and laxatives. So he was taking a lot of drugs and they also found evidence of a big floppy heart, so probably diabetes, type II diabetes”

On top of that, Markel said the screening also indicated a “rip-roaring case of constipation,” not uncommon with opioid use. 

Listen above to hear the full interview with Dr. Howard Markel. 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Sophie Sherry. 

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