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.
(St. Martin's) - ’Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough: The Medical Lives of Famous Writers’ by John J. Ross
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.