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What killed Bruce Lee? Kidney researchers offer a new theory

Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) museum Executive Director Justin Hoover gives a tour of the Bruce Lee exhibition in Chinatown to press and board members on April 6, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Bruce Lee’s proverbial advice, “Be like water,” has taken on a whole new meaning. A group of Spanish kidney experts published research this week theorizing that the San Francisco-born martial arts legend died from hyponatremia, a condition caused by a low concentration of sodium in the blood.

Previously, Lee’s cause of death was shrouded in mystery. Some fans have suspected he was murdered by the sort of gangsters that appeared in his films. The Los Angeles Times reported the findings from the Clinical Kidney Journal, which draw from clinical research, books and news coverage. 

According to the journal article, “Who killed Bruce Lee? The hyponatraemia hypothesis,” Lee spent the last day of his life with actress Betty Ting Pei, rehearsing scenes and smoking cannabis. Lee laid down to rest after taking aspirin and an anti-anxiety medication called meprobamate together in the form of an Equagesic pill. Two hours later, paramedics drove an unconscious Lee to the hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead. 

The new research from Universidad Autónoma de Madrid hypothesizes that Lee’s brain had swelled due to “a specific form of kidney dysfunction.” When the kidney is unable to excrete excess water, it can lead to hyponatremia, cerebral edema and death in a matter of hours. The paper points out that this condition aligns with the timing of Lee’s death and his autopsy results.  

A wall mural painted by Mel Waters in Chinatown features a portrait of Bruce Lee, the Hong Kong and American actor and martial artist. | Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images

They also put forth evidence that suggests Lee’s intensely active lifestyle, high water intake, juice diet and cannabis use predisposed him to hyponatremia. In the conclusion of the journal article, the researchers invoke Lee’s credo. “Ironically, Lee made famous the quote ‘Be water, my friend,’ but excess water appears to have ultimately killed him.”

Lee (né Lee Jun-fan) was born in San Francisco in 1940, the son of a Chinese opera star who was on tour. Several murals and other forms of public art throughout San Francisco immortalize the martial arts hero, as did an exhibtion earlier this year at the Chinese Historical Society of America.