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Irresistible medical biographies of great writers

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Shakespeare's Tremors and Orwell's Cough

The Medical Lives of Famous Writers

By Dr. John J. Ross

St. Martin's Press, 288 pages, $29

IF this irresistibly entertaining collection of medical biographies is anything to go by, its author would make a crackerjack after-dinner speaker.

Each section consists of a whirlwind tour through the life of a famous literary figure from a doctor's perspective, some of it imagined, and all of it punctuated by witty and fun-loving asides.

A typical one is his comparison of Herman Melville's time on a whaling ship, described as tedium alternating with episodes of terror, to watching films by Lars von Trier.

Along the way, Harvard Medical School professor John Ross poses some convincing original theories about the kinds of illnesses (and treatments) they may have suffered from, and how those illnesses affected their creative work. Arguments are ongoing about whether this is a meaningful activity, but its interest can't be denied.

Well-situated to write about both science and literature, Ross is widely published in the field of infectious diseases, and contributed articles on Shakespeare, Melville and George Orwell to scholarly journals as well. Revised and expanded versions of those appear here.

Anton Neumayr's Music & Medicine and Philip Mackowiak's Post Mortem cover somewhat similar territory, though what sets Ross apart is his pure storytelling ability.

Using a fluid and unpretentious style, much like fellow physician and writer Atul Gawande's, he excels at condensing massive amounts of research into pleasurable reading.

One bit of fascinating trivia after the other peppers the brew. Mercury, best practice for the treatment of syphilis in Shakespeare's day for example, was carefully titrated to produce three cups of saliva a day.

Its long-term use also produced personality changes and tremor. As Shakespeare stopped writing in later years, Ross makes his case for mercury poisoning bringing the great playwright's career to an end.

John Milton's abdominal complaints, most likely caused by lead-based concoctions prescribed to halt his vision loss, stopped once he became completely blind. As there was no point in continuing the treatment, which we now know to be lethal, his life was probably saved, and he went on to compose Paradise Lost.

Like the majority of writers in this collection, Charlotte Brontë experienced trauma early in life, in her case when she lost her mother at the age of five. Ross makes interesting connections between the early death of a parent or serious financial problems while young, a family history of mood disorders, and creativity.

Emily Brontë showed a complete lack of interest in social interaction and preferred the company of her pets. Asperger syndrome might explain this as well as account for her literary ability, in Ross's view.

Jonathan Swift's odd aggression in later years, Hawthorne's back problems, Yeats's high fevers, James Joyce's frequent eye operations and Jack London's scurvy while in the Klondike, and all of their romances also get a once-over.

As for George Orwell's cough, it was something that accompanied him from infancy on, but was later complicated by tuberculosis. Illness helped form the writer, and illness deeply affected the tone and depth of his work.

Thomas Mann once said that "medicine and writing go well together, they shed light on each other and both do better by going hand in hand." He could have been talking about Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough.

Ursula Fuchs is a Winnipeg registered nurse.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 J7

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