Roald Dahl’s Marvelous Medicine

Author Roald Dahl was particularly well known for darkly humorous children’s books that form a riotous part of almost every childhood in Britain. Less well known is that he also made some significant contributions to neurology, as detailed in a brief article for Advances in Clinical Neuroscience and Rehabilitation.

The article is available online as a pdf and starts by noting that several of his books contain possible nods to neurological syndromes or fantastical fictional experiments.

These descriptions may hardly be termed ‚Äúcontributions‚Äù, but two personal tragedies certainly did lead to developments of clinical import. Whilst living in New York in 1960, Dahl‚Äôs son Theo, aged 3-4 months, was involved in a road traffic accident which caused some brain damage and secondary hydrocephalus [a dangerous problem preventing cerebrospinal fluid drainage in the brain], the latter requiring shunting. Problems with blocked shunts occurred. The family returned to England and Theo came under the care of Kenneth Till, a neurosurgeon at Great Ormond Street Hospital (1956-80). Prompted by Dahl, and in collaboration with Stanley Wade, an hydraulic engineer, a new type of shunt valve was designed. Reported in the Lancet by Kenneth Till, under the rubric of ‚ÄúNew Inventions‚Äù, the special characteristics were reported to be ‚Äúlow resistance, ease of sterilisation, no reflux, robust construction, and negligible risk of blockage‚Äù. The author acknowledged that the valve was ‚Äúdesigned by Mr Stanley C.Wade… with the assistance of Mr Roald Dahl and myself‚Äù. The Wade-Dahl-Till (or WDT) valve became widely used.

Kenneth Till subsequently wrote a preface for a new edition of Valerie Eaton Griffith’s book entitled A stroke in the family, a manual of home therapy, wherein lies another Dahl connection. In 1965, Dahl’s first wife, the American actress Patricia Neal, suffered a stroke due to a ruptured intracranial aneurysm, one of the consequences of which was marked aphasia, a potential career-ending misfortune for an actress (her illness and recovery are recorded in a book by Barry Farrell). Dahl appealed to Valerie Eaton Griffith, who lived in the same village, for help. With Dahl, she devised a rota of volunteer carers to engage the patient in conversation and hence to stimulate language recovery. This approach, different from formal speech therapy, was documented in Griffith’s book (initially published in 1970, with an introduction by Roald Dahl). It earned the approbation, as “treatment of a surreptitious character”, of no less a neurological figure than Macdonald Critchley, and still has advocates today. It has been suggested that Patricia Neal’s aphasia may have influenced Dahl’s creative processes, for example in the neologisms of The BFG (1982).

The EEG unit at Liverpool’s Alder Hey Children’s Hospital is called the Roald Dahl EEG Unit but I’d never made the connection before.

Dahl was not the first father to be motivated to create a shunt to treat his child. As we discussed previously, engineer John Holter found himself in a very similar position and invented the Holter shunt to treat hydrocephalus in his daughter.

pdf of article on Roald Dahl’s neurological contributions.

One Comment

  1. Jennifer R. Ewing
    Posted March 15, 2010 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    I was born with hydrocephalus. I’ve undergone 17 separate shunting procedures, starting when I was 3 weeks old. Now I understand why Roald Dahl was my favorite author when I was a child! :-)


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