X-Ray of tubercular lung
March 17, 2013

Shakespeare & Orwell

The X-ray above shows a lung with tuberculosis, aka, consumption. During the 19th century there was a bit of a fad for TB. It was thought to be poetic, spiritual, and the sufferers of TB were thought to be somehow more pure, more spiritual than the rest of us. Sometime in the 1870s or a bit later that began to change, and it was seen as a not so nice, not so spiritual disease. In the period before 1946 there was no truly effective treatment for TB, however, streptomycin in 1946, isoniazid in 1952, rifampicin in 1957, and the later emergence of Pyrazinamide and Ethambutol have made the disease more treatable. This in turn has been complicated by the emergence of Multiple Drug Resistant (MDR) TB, or MDR-TB. Among the literati afflicted by TB we can count the Brontës, Keats, Orwell, Heinlein, and Camus.

While a number of literary men have been afflicted with TB, that's not the only disease that authors are prone too. There are diseases associated with sex, notably syphilis and gonorrhea, and diseases of the mind, such as depression, alcoholism, and a host of other ills.

John Ross, a Harvard M.D., has written a book that looks at the medical conditions afflicting a number of authors.

Shakespeare—His final known signature shows signs of a tremor. Could it be a tremor associated with syphilis and the accompanying paresis?

Milton—His blindness was not caused, as you and I were taught, by eyestrain. I should note that I have never liked Milton, and always thought that he was a pig. There's nothing here that convinces me that he was anything other than a vile human being, and had I been Charles II I would have cheerfully sent him to the block.

Swift—In reading about Finnegans Wake I've come across references to the Journal to Stella. Ross explains the situation, and gives examples of Swift's obsession with scatological subject matter.

Hawthorne and Melville—Two chapters for the authors but they're linked by friendship, and by Melville's possibly homoerotic affection for Hawthorne. (19th century styles of expression of friendship differ considerably from 20th and 21st century styles, so it may be reading too much into Melville's expressions of friendship, and affection to see them as homosexual texts.) James Joyce—Ulysses is full of sex. I didn't see it when I first read it at 15, and I'm not sure I see every sexual reference now at 67, but there's a fair amount there. Joyce was treated with for "gleet," or gonorrhea. Reading the description of untreated gonorrhea and the treatment once it was diagnosed should make you get down on your knees and give thanks that you're alive now rather than a 100 years ago.

Orwell—The treatment for TB was barbaric, and the conditions that were associated with it were also barbaric. The Brontës suffered from unhygienic conditions that caused and exacerbated their TB, and Orwell didn't do much better. Ross's description of the suffering of Orwell and the Brontës is horrific.

There's much here that is of interest, and if you're not already glad that you're living in the era of CT scans and MRIs, this will make you glad.

Next up, a history of the Tower of London.