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Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough: The…

Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough: The Medical Lives of Famous… (edition 2012)

by John J. Ross

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Title:Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough: The Medical Lives of Famous Writers
Authors:John J. Ross
Info:St. Martin's Press
Tags:Biography, Literary Biography, Medicine, Read in 2013

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Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough: The Medical Lives of Famous Writers by John J. Ross


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I thought this was a terrific read. Dr Ross correlated the clinicopathologic details with the lives of the famous authors, and offered up his interpretation of the most likely diagnoses. He provides logical evidence for his conclusions, in a way reminiscent of the Clinicopathologic Conferences of the New England Journal of Medicine. But these are way more interesting to read.

I liked how he integrated the medical details with the biographical details.

For instance, through logical deduction he shows that Jonathan Swift likely suffered from frontotemporal dementia which is characterized by marked disinhibition. His creative output, especially of scatalogical poems, surged late in life, around the time when his dementia was likely beginning.

The chapter I most enjoyed was on James Joyce, he with those round dark glasses. Joyces’s symptoms began around 1904, when he complained of burning urinary symptoms; his friend thought it sounded like ‘gleet’, or gonorrhea. That was not surprising, given Joyce’s “penchant for wenching in Dublin’s red-light district.” The penile purulent discharge was at the time believed to be gonorrhea, but very likely also represented Chlamydia infection. Infection with both diseases was also possible - that was (and is) a frequent occurrence.

Three years later he developed polyarthritis and iritis (inflammation of the iris of the eye). Joyce continued to be plagued by severe progressive eye damage due to recurrent bouts of inflammation.
This triad, of inflammation of the urethra, eyes and joints, is typical of Reiter’s syndrome, which is an autoimmune disease triggered by infection, typically Chlamydia. It was named after the German physician Hans Conrad Julius Reiter, who years later was convicted of war crimes, which included medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners.

Over the years, Joyce was afflicted by recurrent relapses of arthritis and eye inflammations, and suffered much damage to his eyes from the scarring and attempted futile repairs, eventually rendering him almost blind.

When World War 2 broke out, Joyce’s schizophrenic daughter (Lucia, named after the patron saint of vision) was in an asylum in occupied France. Joyce feared for her. The Nazi policy was of forced sterilization or euthanasia of the mentally ill. And who was in charge of that program? Yes, Dr Hans Reiter, of Reiter’s syndrome, the disease suffered by James Joyce.

If he had only used a condom… ( )
  TheBookJunky | Apr 22, 2016 |
A fascinating, engrossing take on literary biography. Ross is as wonderfully adept at writing about literature and history as he is about medicine. ( )
  Sullywriter | May 22, 2015 |
Brilliant and fascinating! An exhaustively researched and compelling look at the bodies (literally) behind some of the greatest works of literature. ( )
  jenspirko | May 8, 2013 |
The writer of this book, John J. Ross, is a doctor who put his medical knowledge to work to try and figure out what ailments plagued ten classic authors- and what killed them.

Everyone talks about their health, and authors are no different. Letters by and about them give lots of clues as to their medical state, and they, along with articles and biographies, have given Ross their symptoms. Modern medical training has given him the means to decipher them. Shakespeare’s hand tremor was probably from mercury poisoning, a treatment for venereal disease (and a lot of other things, right up to the 1950s) in the Bard’s day. Nathaniel Hawthorne had social phobia, and almost certainly died of a blood clot, which his advanced stomach cancer put him at high risk for.

The book is a bit like episodes of House (minus the massive bleeding scenes and the snark) set in the past. The author explains, in plain language, how the various diseases operate in the body and how he came to his conclusions. So it’s a bit of a disease primer, as well as a history of medical treatments, some of which are truly horrifying. I found it fascinating, both entertaining and educational. ( )
  lauriebrown54 | Feb 18, 2013 |
A largely-speculative collection of essays in which Ross attempts to diagnose writers from Shakespeare to Orwell, Melville to Swift. Some of the evidence and documentation of the maladies Ross discusses is fairly conclusive, making for the most interesting portions of the book, but at points Ross gets pretty far out on some limbs, and he seems to have a few particular favorites: syphilis, Asperger syndrome, and bipolar disorder are brought up surprisingly often in these pages. To be fair, he does at least note when he's making leaps, but this leads to a great number of qualified statements. And the "fictionalized vignettes" that he adds to open a few of the chapters would have been better omitted.

I will say that I liked the discussions of historical treatments for various illnesses, and certain chapters contained valuable information on how illness might have shaped the various authors' works, but on the whole I thought this book a bit over-done. ( )
  JBD1 | Jan 3, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312600763, Hardcover)

The doctor suddenly appeared beside Will, startling him. He was sleek and prosperous, with a dainty goatee. Though he smiled reassuringly, the poet noticed that he kept a safe distance. In a soothing, urbane voice, the physician explained the treatment: stewed prunes to evacuate the bowels; succulent meats to ease digestion; cinnabar and the sweating tub to cleanse the disease from the skin. The doctor warned of minor side effects: uncontrolled drooling, fetid breath, bloody gums, shakes and palsies. Yet desperate diseases called for desperate remedies, of course.

Were Shakespeare’s shaky handwriting, his obsession with venereal disease, and his premature retirement connected? Did John Milton go blind from his propaganda work for the Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell, as he believed, or did he have a rare and devastating complication of a very common eye problem? Did Jonathan Swift’s preoccupation with sex and filth result from a neurological condition that might also explain his late-life surge in creativity? What Victorian plague wiped out the entire Brontë family? What was the cause of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sudden demise? Were Herman Melville’s disabling attacks of eye and back pain the product of “nervous affections,” as his family and physicians believed, or did he actually have a malady that was unknown to medical science until well after his death? Was Jack London a suicide, or was his death the product of a series of self-induced medical misadventures? Why did W. B. Yeats’s doctors dose him with toxic amounts of arsenic? Did James Joyce need several horrific eye operations because of a strange autoimmune disease acquired from a Dublin streetwalker? Did writing Nineteen Eighty-Four actually kill George Orwell?         The Bard meets House, M.D. in this fascinating untold story of the impact of disease on the lives and works of some the finest writers in the English language. In Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough, John Ross cheerfully debunks old biographical myths and suggests fresh diagnoses for these writers’ real-life medical mysteries. The author takes us way back, when leeches were used for bleeding and cupping was a common method of cure, to a time before vaccinations, sterilized scalpels, or real drug regimens. With a healthy dose of gross descriptions and a deep love for the literary output of these ten greats, Ross is the doctor these writers should have had in their time of need.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:20 -0400)

The hardest knife ill-used : Shakespeare's tremor -- Exil'd from light : the blindness of John Milton -- dying from the top down : the dementia of Jonathan Swift -- Some sweet poisoned breeze had passed into her lungs : the Bronts and tuberculosis -- dismal labyrinth of doubt : the strange death of Nathaniel Hawthorne -- Perilous outpost of the sane : the many maladies of Herman Melville -- Sex and the dead : brucellosis, arsenic, and William Butler Yeats -- Medical misadventures of an amateur M.D. : Jack London's death by hubris -- An infamous private ailment : the venereal afflictions of James Joyce -- "The disease which was bound to claim me sooner or later" : Orwell's cough.… (more)

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