“Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough: The Medical Lives of Famous Writers” by John J. Ross
By Susan Okie,
What a delicious gumbo of odd personalities, colorful literary history and enlightened deduction is served up by physician John J. Ross in “Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough”! In essays that combine witty biography with expert medical detective skills, Ross — a physician at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School — examines the physical and psychiatric symptoms of 10 famous British and American writers, ranging from John Milton, William Butler Yeats and the Brontes to James Joyce, Herman Melville and Jack London.
Considering the available facts about their medical histories as well as the diseases and the often poisonous remedies common in their times, he attempts to diagnose what ailed them, or at least to debunk improbable theories and arrive at highly educated guesses. But Ross’s chapters don’t read in the least like treatises from a medical journal; rather, they are an engrossing, hilarious and often bawdy introduction to some of the most eccentric characters who ever dipped a quill or pounded a typewriter.
For instance, Ross describes the young Ezra Pound, the close friend, secretary and sometime fencing instructor of Yeats, as “a lean bundle of nervous energy with a vertical mass of russet hair, beady eyes, a foxy Van Dyke, a solitary turquoise earring, and a wardrobe that out-Yeatsed Yeats in foppishness.” After the great Irish poet developed dangerously high blood pressure and lung congestion in the late 1920s, he and his wife started wintering with the Pounds in Rapallo, Italy. But when Yeats began suffering daily high fevers in 1929, the younger poet witnessed his mentor’s will and afterward shunned his bedside, fearing contagion.
An eminent Italian doctor eventually diagnosed Yeats with brucellosis — an infection commonly transmitted by contaminated cow’s or goat’s milk — and prescribed injections of horse serum and arsenic. Yeats went on to live another 10 years, writing some of his finest poetry and even submitting, in his late 60s, to the “Steinach procedure” (a vasectomy fashionable as sex therapy), which he claimed restored his potency to that of a young man. He once wrote, “I am still of the opinion that only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mood — sex and the dead.”
Some of Ross’s other subjects are as remarkable for their mental peculiarities as for their physical ills. Tuberculosis stalked the famous Bronte siblings, killing the writers Charlotte, Anne and Emily, as well as their dissolute brother, Branwell, and two older sisters. Emily’s personality may have contributed to her stoic response to her illness: She was a homebody, tongue-tied with strangers, fonder of animals than people, preoccupied with her fantasies, and rigidly attached to her routines of cooking, cleaning, writing and walking on the moors. To Ross, these well-documented traits suggest that Emily had Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. Asperger syndrome, he believes, could help explain elements of her writing style in “Wuthering Heights” — for example, her portrayal of the lovers’ passion as irrational and destructive — as well as her stubborn focus on her work and her refusal to see a doctor for her TB.
Ross proposes psychiatric diagnoses for several other literary figures: For example, he writes that Jonathan Swift had the classic behavioral features of obsessive-compulsive disorder and that Herman Melville probably suffered from bipolar II disorder, with episodes of “hypomania” such as the supremely creative period during which he wrote “Moby-Dick,” as well as bouts of severe depression.
Sexually transmitted diseases figure prominently in the lives of some of Ross’s subjects, as do the toxic remedies often used to treat such infections before the discovery of antibiotics. In 1904, the young James Joyce wrote to his friend Oliver Gogarty, a medical student, asking for advice on how to treat his troublesome urinary symptoms, which may have developed following a visit to Dublin’s red-light district. Gogarty, diagnosing at a distance, referred Joyce to a doctor for what he guessed to be gonorrhea. Three years later, Joyce was hospitalized for arthritis and eye inflammation. Bouts of eye pain recurred over the next decade or more; ultimately, Joyce developed severe glaucoma and lost most of his sight. Joyce’s eye problems may have stemmed from his youthful dalliance: Chlamydia, a sexual infection with symptoms similar to gonorrhea, can lead to a complication known as “reactive arthritis,” which sometimes produces dangerous inflammation of the iris.
Although Ross opens his book with the case of William Shakespeare, he is on far shakier ground when writing about the Bard’s health than when diagnosing writers about whose lives more is known. As he acknowledges, “the only medical fact known with certainty about William Shakespeare is that his handwriting deteriorated in his last years.” Stretching to come up with an explanation for Shakespeare’s increasingly illegible script (which may have reduced his literary productivity in later life), Ross proposes a plausible but unprovable theory: a tremor produced by damage to the brain’s cerebellum, a side effect of mercury poisoning. Why mercury poisoning? Because mercury compounds, administered along with steaming hot baths, were a common treatment for syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection probably brought to Europe from the New World. Syphilis was epidemic in Shakespeare’s England, especially in London, and Ross writes that the disease was far more aggressive than it is today, often killing its victims.
Any evidence that Shakespeare had syphilis is indirect and tenuous; for example, an anecdote in a diary of the day refers to him as an amorous adventurer, lines in some of the sonnets can be construed as referring to symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases, and several of the plays contain mentions of syphilis (variously known as “the pox,” “the malady of France,” “the incurable bone-ache,” “the good year” and “Winchester goose”) and to its treatments. The syphilis scenario gives Ross a chance to expound upon the disease’s fascinating history and to work in many intriguing anecdotes culled from his admirable literary research.
Is he on the right track, or is he libeling Shakespeare? Sadly, we’ll never know. But like his other, better-supported medical subplots, it makes for a rollicking good story.
Susan Okie is a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and a former editor and reporter for The Washington Post.
SHAKESPEARE’S TREMOR AND ORWELL’S COUGH The Medical Lives of Great Writers By John J. Ross St. Martin’s. 291 pp. $24.99