Monday, February 18, 2013

Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough: The Medical Lives of Famous Writers, by John J. Ross, M.D. St. Martin’s Press, 2012

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. 


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