Did Jonathan Swift’s precoocupation with sex and filth result from a neurological condition that might also explain his late-life surge in creativity 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?
(from the book jacket)
If you find any of those questions remotely interesting then Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough: The Medical Lives of Famous Writers may be the book for you. John Ross, the physician author, examines the lives of ten great writers through the lens of their medical complaints. Each chapter focuses on one writer and contains a concise biography centering around any medical issues the author had. Known diagnoses are included as well as what Ross suspects each author may have suffered from based on reported symptoms. Ross is very clear about what is fact and what is conjecture. He also doesn’t attempt to analyze their literary works based on their medical issues. He sometimes raises interesting questions. (Why does there seem to be a high percentage of authors described as having Asperger like personality traits? Why do so many authors seem to have suffered from depression, bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses?) Although I had read works by nine out of ten of the authors (Joyce being the tenth), I had never heard most of the biographical details mentioned here so found the book fascinating from that perspective.
It’s also a fascinating look at medical care over the centuries. This may not be the book for you if you are at all squeamish. Ross doesn’t think twice about describing some pretty gross medical conditions and their treatments. No matter what you think of doctors today, at least we aren’t prescribing oil of puppies or “mummy” (ground up human bones or muscle). But if that sentence doesn’t dissuade you, I’d highly recommend this book. The author’s style is easy to read and I guarantee you’ll learn something new. Plus, it’s just kind of fun.