Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Great Writers and Their Illnesses: "Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough" by John J. Ross, M.D.

The Committee Room gives an appreciative nod to modern medicine after reading Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough: The Medical Lives of Famous Writers by John J. Ross, M.D. Starting with Shakespeare and ending with George Orwell, Ross looks at the ailments that plagued some of the leading lights of English literature.

Tuberculosis, cancer, heart disease, blindness or near blindness, ulcerated skin, crippling arthritis, and deep depression are just a few of the afflictions suffered by this selection of great writers. In many cases the medical treatments they underwent were as dangerous as the diseases themselves. It's a wonder how these people got anything done at all, let alone produced enduring works of literature.

Ross, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and a physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, explains in an author's note that the idea for the book came to him while doing research for a presentation on the once infamous venereal disease syphilis. According to Ross, syphilis has become such a rare disease that many American physicians don't recognize its symptoms. Ross writes -- "I put together a Power Point talk on syphilis for medical grand rounds, and thought to tart it up with a few Shakespeare quotations, having a vague recollection from my undergraduate days that the Bard was fond of joking about the great pox."

John J. Ross, M.D. 
Ross was startled to find that references to syphilis abound in the works of Shakespeare. "My curiosity was peaked and I did some more digging," Ross writes. "Was there a connection between Shakespeare's syphilitic obsession, contemporary gossip about his sexual misadventures, and the only medical fact known about him with certainty -- that his handwriting became tremulous in late middle age?"

Some of the chapters in Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough first appeared in medical journals yet Ross writes in a light style aimed at the lay reader. For readers who want to go deeper the book offers a relatively extensive bibliography and endnotes.

Here is a sampling of the authors discussed and their medical histories.

Great Writers and the Illnesses They Suffered

William Shakespeare -- The immortal Elizabethan seems to have had a case of syphilis that was cured with mercury vapor treatments. The treatments resulted in mercury poisoning. He was left with a host of physical problems, most notably tremors. His death at age fifty-two was probably due to typhoid fever.

John Milton
John Milton -- The Puritan poet's famous blindness was probably due to retinal detachment in both eyes that today could be effectively treated with laser therapy. He had a lifelong pattern of social maladjustment and interpersonal difficulties that suggests Asperger's Syndrome. In middle age he developed severe pallor, digestive issues, and gout that point to lead poisoning. His death at age sixty-five was probably due to cardiac arrhythmia.

Jonathan Swift
(Courtesy of Crawford Art
Gallery, Ireland)
Jonathan Swift -- The Irish satirist had hearing loss and vertigo due to Meniere's disease (progressive failure of the inner ear). He also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (in his case excessive cleanliness and personal hygiene habits) and possibly had Asperger's Syndrome. In his later years he developed extremely painful inflammation of the eye and what seems to have been Pick's Disease, a type of dementia characterized by a general inability to control emotions. His angry outbursts led to his being labeled insane by his contemporaries. He died at age seventy-seven most likely from a general decline brought on by Pick's Disease.

Bronte Sisters by
Branwell Bronte
The Brontes -- These reclusive Yorkshire sisters all suffered from  tuberculosis that may have been contracted in childhood at the Clergy Daughters' School. The school served as a model for the miserable Lowood School in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Emily Bronte's lifelong lack of sociability, hard to control behavior, and absorption in fantasy strongly suggests Asperger's Syndrome. Charlotte and Emily, as well as their sister Anne and brother Branwell, all died from tuberculosis. Two other Bronte sisters died of tuberculosis in childhood. Charlotte, who died at age thirty-eight, was the longest lived of the siblings.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne -- The author of The Scarlet Letter seems to have suffered from social anxiety disorder or social phobia. He was described by a contemporary as the "least gregarious of men." One of Hawthorne's few close friends was Franklin Pierce, a Bowdoin College classmate who went on to become U.S. President. Hawthorne relied heavily on alcohol to cope with social activities and with his public duties as U.S. consul in Liverpool during the Pierce Administration. He also suffered from depressive episodes. Hawthorne died at age fifty-nine from stomach cancer, a type of cancer which was more common in the past due in part to high consumption of salted, smoked, and cured meat.

Herman Melville 
Herman Melville -- Melville wrote Moby-Dick and other works during periods of frenzied activity that suggest bi-polar disorder. He experienced increasingly long depressive periods as he grew older and struggled mightily to complete Pierre; or The Ambiguities. Ross says the short story "Bartleby the Scrivener" can from "a medical perspective" be read as "a story about catatonic depression." At age thirty-one Melville began experiencing chest and back aches, severe eye pain, and sensitivity to light that Ross suspects were symptoms of the autoimmune disease ankylosing spondylitis (AS) that eventually left him with extremely rigid posture. A horseback riding accident at age forty-three seems to have left Melville with post-traumatic stress disorder. He also suffered from arthritis in his hands that made it  difficult to hold a pen as he got older. Melville died, mostly forgotten by the public, at age seventy-two from apparent heart failure.

Yeats at about age 40
(Photo Univ. of N. Carolina)
William Butler Yeats -- This titan of modern poetry had severe hypertension. He also had poor eyesight in his left eye due to keratoconus, a degenerative condition of the cornea. His strangest ailment was prosopagnosia, a condition which makes it difficult to recognize faces, even those of close family members. Yeats is said to have not recognized his own daughter one day as she returned home from school. In his sixties, Yeats survived a lengthy and near fatal case of brucellosis or Malta Fever probably contracted from drinking contaminated milk. He later underwent a vasectomy (then called a Steinach procedure) in the hope of rejuvenation. Ross writes -- "Supposedly, terminating the reproductive function of the aging testis allowed it to fully devote its flagging energies to the production of testosterone, allowing the return of vigor, youth, and potency...Yeats' Steinach procedure had a remarkable placebo effect on the poet. He had what he called a 'strange second puberty.'" Yeats is yet another writer who seems to have been on the autism spectrum. He was incapable of small talk and composed his poems while waving his arms and chanting. He died at age seventy-three of heart failure.

Here's More Information --

"10 Writers Physical and Mental Maladies." Huffington Post, 23 October 2012.

Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough Blog (about medicine and culture by John J. Ross).

The Committee Room. Time Spent with TCR is Never Wasted.


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