The legend of martial arts film star Bruce Lee has reached mythological proportions, so it’s no surprise his untimely death sparked conspiracy theories. Especially because the official cause of Lee’s death, when he was just 32, has always been controversial.
Lee died on July 20, 1973, in Hong Kong. The cause was officially listed as swelling of the brain, which was reportedly brought on by an allergic reaction to headache medication.
A biography about Lee’s life, published in 2018, however, challenged that explanation. Biographer Matthew Polly’s explanation was more down to earth than some of the more fantastical ones: Lee, Polly hypothesized, died from heat stroke, a dangerous but rare condition made more probable by the fact that Lee recently had the sweat glands in his armpits surgically removed.
Polly noted that what is often missed about Lee’s death is the fact that he fainted from heat stroke about 10 weeks before his death, which also put him at higher risk for having another such episode. In a piece published on History.com, Polly wrote:
The experts were so focused on what had happened on July 20 that they failed to adequately consider earlier evidence. Several months before his death, Lee had an operation to remove the sweat glands from his armpits, because he thought dank pits looked bad on-screen. This reduced his body’s ability to dissipate heat. Ten weeks before his death on May 10, Lee walked into a tiny dubbing room to re-record dialogue for Enter the Dragon. The engineers turned off the air conditioner to avoid having its noise ruin the soundtrack. After about 30 minutes in this sauna-like room, Lee fainted and started convulsing. He was rushed to the hospital and nearly died from a cerebral edema. The doctors diagnosed and treated it in the nick of time.
None of them realized his collapse was most likely due to heat stroke, one of the most common killers of young athletic men in the summer months. In the United States alone, an average of three high school and college football players die every year of heat stroke. A common finding in the autopsy of heat-stroke victims is cerebral edema. “A person who has suffered one heat stroke is at increased risk for another,” says Dr. Lisa Leon, an expert in hyperthermia at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. “Patients experience multi-organ dysfunction during the hours, days and weeks of recovery, which increases the risk of long-term disability and death.”
When Lee died, he was at the Hong Kong apartment of his mistress, Betty Ting. He complained of a headache, went to take a nap, but never woke up. Although Ting and Lee’s business partner, Raymond Chow, tried to cover up the fact the married Lee was with Ting, eventually the truth came out. And when it did, some people wrongly blamed Ting for his death. This, Polly reported, put her life in danger, including threats and bomb hoaxes.
Conspiracy theories about Lee’s death were cinematic and even supernatural.
One belief was that Ting murdered him in an assassination by triads, or Chinese organized crime, which Lee had tangled with as a youth. Another, which gained momentum when Lee’s son, Brandon, was accidentally killed on the set of the movie “The Crow” in 1993, was that Lee’s family carried a curse afflicting the males.
But as the South China Morning Post pointed out, the “curse” story doesn’t quite hold up under scrutiny. Lee’s brother, Robert, is still living. Another brother, Peter, lived to be 69.
Blake, John. “New Bruce Lee Bio Debunks Myths about the ‘Kung Fu Jesus.’” CNN, 7 July 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/07/07/us/bruce-lee-myth-vs-reality/index.html.
“Did an Ancient Chinese Curse Kill Bruce Lee? 6 Conspiracy Theories.” South China Morning Post, 20 July 2021, https://www.scmp.com/magazines/style/celebrity/article/3141681/what-killed-bruce-lee-triads-jealous-lover-ancient.
Polly, Matthew. “How Did Bruce Lee Die? (Hint: It May Have Been Related to His Sweat Glands).” HISTORY, 20 July 2018, https://www.history.com/news/bruce-lee-death-mystery-solved-sweat-glands.