Tom Solomon, Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Medicine (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 2016) 256 pp. £10.00 Pb. ISBN: 9781781383391
In 2016, I had the privilege to participate in a conference at the University of Cardiff commemorating and celebrating the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth. Not unexpectedly, academic contributions were predominantly dedicated to his stories, their adaptations and illustrations, and many emphasised the rich biographical substratum informing his fiction. One of the public events that captured this latter aspect for me, was the interview with professor of neuroscience Tom Solomon about his new book Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Medicine, published in 2016. It was inspired by meeting, conversing with, and medically treating Dahl in 1990 when Solomon was a Junior Doctor at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. Solomon was an engaging and enthusiastic speaker, with a passion and respect for the arts and humanities that is apparent in the book itself. It reflects the wealth of research undertaken by Solomon in archives, as well as his engagement with Dahl’s vast corpus, and the conversations with Dahl’s friends and families, in a concerted effort to diagnose the anecdotes shared during their witching hours on the ward.
To the majority, Dahl will be best known as the consistently-voted favourite children’s author of renowned titles from James and the Giant Peach (1961) to Matilda (1988), and numerous others that have also been adapted for film and stage. Some may know him as the author of the sardonic and dark television series Tales of the Unexpected (1979 and 1988), many episodes of which were adapted from his published short stories for adults. Perhaps others are aware that he wrote the screenplays for two Ian Fleming adaptations; the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice and the 1968 musical fantasy Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Amongst the author’s numerous accomplishments, however, are various direct contributions to the field of medicine – not only as a generous philanthropist and patron of charitable works such as the Stroke Association and The Encephalitis Society, but, for instance, as the co-inventor of the Wade-Dahl-Till valve still used today in the treatment of hydrocephalus. Dahl’s involvement in its invention and production, togethr with the narrative that explained it to the medical world in a 1964 issue of The Lancet were, as is true of many of the medical interventions detailed in Solomon’s book, the result of personal experience combined with a hunger and fascination for medical knowledge.
Solomon is not the first to touch upon this subject, as over the past three decades biographers have noted how Dahl’s life was characterised by successive tragedies: the death of his sister Astri from appendicitis when she was seven, followed only weeks later by the death of his father from pneumonia (although the family believed it was grief), the collision of a taxi with the pram of Dahl’s four-month-old son Theo, which resulted in the hydrocephalus that inspired the valve, to the death of his daughter Olivia, again aged seven, from measles encephalitis, the aneurysm of his first wife Patricia Neal that caused a stroke, and the death of his step-daughter Lorina from a brain tumour. These were in addition to a number of accidents and conditions afflicting Dahl himself; such as a near-fatal plane crash as a WWII RAF pilot that involved reconstructive facial surgery and persistent back problems. Yet, what Solomon does differently, aided by both his medical experience and personal memories of the dying Dahl, is to deliver a multi-layered story that identifies a network between these key biographical events, the changing history of medicine, medical narrative, doctor-patient relationships, and Dahl’s writing.
There are far too many connections to list here, but to offer a taster, many of the neologisms that characterise the dialogue of the Big Friendly Giant were inspired by Patricia Neal’s aphasia following her stroke, as was, possibly, the sadness she felt at being unable to dream anymore. In 1990, Dahl was significantly involved in the British Dyslexia Association’s Awareness Campaign, and ensured that all the proceeds for his children’s story The Vicar of Nibbleswicke (published posthumously in 1991), about a dyslexic reverend, were donated to the Dyslexic Institute in London. Perhaps most Dahlish is the hilarious and crude discussions of bowel movements found in the adult’s novel My Uncle Oswald (1979), his autobiography Boy (1984), and children’s stories Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) and The BFG (1982), reflecting Dahl’s lifelong problems with his own bowels.
Solomon’s tribute is not really intended as a biography, and owing to the wandering style of the narrative the chronology can be confusing for those unfamiliar with the timeline of Dahl’s life. However, what one does appreciate from the historical expanse Solomon covers, is the extent to which Dahl lived through a period of great technical and theoretical medical advancements. Similarly, he suffered owing to the lack of progress in many areas, such as the inadequate vaccination programmes for children. Yet, as was typical for the author, Dahl was instrumental in encouraging nationwide action by parents and local health councils, penning a pamphlet in 1986 that greatly influenced the implementation of vaccination initiatives. The network of stories Solomon relays more than compensates for the labyrinthine structure, and besides, the book is not only about Dahl: it is as much about what Solomon gained from his interactions with the dying author, and Solomon’s endeavours to educate the reader on the history of related diseases and conditions by touching upon similar cases he has encountered during his career. There are some charming personal connections between Dahl and Solomon, not only as descendants of immigrants who had settled in Cardiff, but in their shared interests: ‘just as he, a writer, has always wanted to be a doctor, so have I, a doctor, always wanted to be a writer’ (24). For the lay reader, the use of scientific terminology throughout can be challenging, but Solomon repeatedly assists through analogies and metaphors that reflect his belief in the importance of descriptive narrative in diagnosing historical ailments.
The result is an informative and inspiring read not only for the medical humanities scholar, but for the general reader. And for all readers, the story is particularly affecting as it draws towards its conclusion – it does not try to separate medicine and emotion, but shows how they are inexorably entwined, and therefore that narrative, in all its forms, is imperative to both diagnosis and empathy.
Jen Baker, University of Bristol