cover image Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough: The Medical 
Lives of Great Writers

Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough: The Medical Lives of Great Writers

John J. Ross, M.D. St. Martin’s, $24.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-312-60076-1

English majors and medical students alike, not to mention laypeople of all stripes, will enjoy Ross’s first book, a speculative journey through the medical histories of 11 famed authors. The project originated with individual articles, first published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, on the two titular authors, who now bookend eight other, chronologically arranged chapters (Emily and Charlotte Brontë share one). Examining the evidence available, Ross (a physician at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School) theorizes, in informed but accessible language, about what may have ailed these writers. The authors’ personalities, as well as their maladies, are placed under Ross’s microscope—Nathaniel Hawthorne may have struggled with social phobia, and William Butler Yeats with Asperger syndrome. His theories, such as the notion that Jonathan Swift’s uninhibited satire was abetted by dementia, can go only so far, however, before coming up against the wildly different medical ideas of past eras. These differences do throw up such fascinating tidbits as the use of mercury to treat syphilis in Elizabethans like Shakespeare, or of “mummy,” a medicine made from the dried corpses of executed felons, in John Milton’s time. Ross’s ability, moreover, to make the likes of Jack London, Herman Melville, and James Joyce come alive anew makes up for the inability to definitively anatomize them. Agent: Mary Beth Chappell, Zachary Shuster Hamsworth. (Oct.)