John J. Ross's Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough: The Medical Lives of Great Writers is everything you need to know about the afflictions of history's greatest writers. Ross (a doctor and writer) outlines a few of the maladies of the authors we love.
Oddly enough, Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough is the by-product of a syphilis outbreak in Boston in 2000. Syphilis, which infected half a million Americans in 1945, had become rare in the United States. Many doctors had never seen a case. At the hospital where I then worked as an infectious diseases specialist, several patients with secondary syphilis went undiagnosed when seen by their primary care doctors. I put together a PowerPoint talk on syphilis for medical grand rounds, and thought to tart it up with a few Shakespeare quotes, having a vague recollection from my days as an English undergraduate that the Bard was fond of joking about the great pox. I dusted off my battered copy of the Riverside Shakespeare and started leafing through it. Holy crap, I thought, there is a lot of stuff here on syphilis. My curiosity was piqued, and I dug some more. Was there a connection between Shakespeare’s venereal obsession, contemporary gossip about his sexual misadventures, the appalling Elizabethan mercury cure for the pox, and the Bard’s tremulous handwriting in late middle age?
In Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough, I tackle twelve writers and their real-life medical mysteries, blending biography, literature, and grisly medical history. Here are a few:
1. The Brontës—The deaths of Charlotte and Emily Brontë have inspired a great deal of pernicious biographical claptrap. Charlotte died to resolve her repressed sexual desire for her father; Charlotte committed suicide by starvation in response to being intellectually smothered by the Victorian patriarchy; Emily and Charlotte had anorexia; Charlotte died in pregnancy from hysterical rejection of the fetus; Charlotte’s dullard husband was actually a fiendish serial killer who offed the whole lot. In reality, all six of the Brontë siblings died of tuberculosis, a Victorian plague that killed off 1% of the English population per year. TB is a chronic, lingering infection that spreads rapidly in confined spaces, especially among the malnourished and demoralized. It entered the Brontë household after the older girls, Maria and Elizabeth, were infected at the Clergy Daughter’s School. This was the place made infamous by Charlotte as the brutal Lowood School in Jane Eyre, where the girls were beaten, starved, and terrorized by tales of hellfire and damnation. Although the suffering, consumptive artist is a tired cliché, there may be some truth in it, as the immune system is weakened by emotional turmoil, of which the Brontës had plenty. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne had depressive episodes; brother Branwell had bipolar disorder and dipsomania; Emily, brainy and odd, probably also had Asperger syndrome and social anxiety disorder.
2. William Butler Yeats—On Christmas Eve 1929, the poet Yeats was delirious and suffering from a 104°F fever in the Italian resort town of Rapallo. His crackpot buddy Ezra Pound fled the scene, fearing contagion. One of Mussolini’s top docs was called in, and made the exotic diagnosis of brucellosis. Yeats recovered after weeks of fevers and drenching sweats, thanks to shots of arsenic and horse serum. But his brush with mortality did not leave him unscathed. The brilliant and peculiar poet, who may have had Asperger syndrome, became obsessed with sex and death. This is reflected in his masterful final poems, and also in his quest to perk up his sex drive, which led to a weird “rejuvenation” surgery that produced a “strange second puberty.” Gossips called him the “gland old man” and “a Cadillac engine in a Ford car.”
3. James Joyce—In 1904, young Joyce’s fondness for Dublin streetwalkers led to a case of “gleet,” or gonorrhea. His frenemy, Dr. Oliver Gogarty, directed him to a local specialist, who would have given Joyce state-of-the-art therapy: penile irrigation with a purple solution of potassium permanganate. Joyce’s gonorrhea was gone, but he soon developed terrible attacks of eye pain and arthritis. This may have been an autoimmune illness triggered by genital Chlamydia. Joyce suffered through eleven grueling eye surgeries. Afterwards, leeches were applied to drain the blood and reduce the swelling. Not surprisingly, he developed a horror of the scalpel. Joyce spent most of his last two decades writing Finnegans Wake. This baffling, brilliant tribute to language itself was created despite Joyce’s near-blindness, alcoholism, peptic ulcers, pancreatitis, and his heartbreak over the decline of his beloved daughter Lucia, who suffered from schizophrenia.
4. George Orwell—In the essay "Why I Write", George Orwell stated, "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness." The reader might interpret this as mere metaphor, but it was literally true for Orwell. His health collapsed for the first time after the writing of Homage to Catalonia, and the heroic effort of writing and revising Nineteen Eighty-Four would kill him. As a child, Orwell was "chesty", probably from an illness in infancy that left him with damaged bronchial tubes (bronchiectasis). Orwell made matters worse by chain smoking vile tobacco. (This was not seen as problematic, as 85% of English doctors smoked at the time.) As an adult, he survived four bouts of pneumonia and a bullet through the neck in Spain, but eventually succumbed to the tuberculosis that he acquired during his years of tramping, poverty, and vagabondage. Orwell underwent a series of horripilating treatments for TB, which included injections of air into his peritoneal cavity in a failed attempt to collapse the tuberculous part of his lung, and drugs that led to a near fatal allergic reaction. These ordeals influenced the account of the tortures of Winston Smith in the Ministry of Love. Orwell admitted that Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been a less gloomy novel had he been in good health, although it almost certainly would have been less powerful. Obsessed with guilt and failure, Orwell once observed, "Any life viewed from the inside is a series of defeats." In the end, he lost his battle against tuberculosis. But Orwell's masterworks, completed at such a terrible physical cost, represent a great triumph of the human spirit over tyranny and lies.