Roald Dahl's groundbreaking contributions to medicine

WASHINGTON • While Roald Dahl is known around the world for his exuberant children's books, he also held a quieter, parallel fascination with medicine that spanned his entire adult life. That passion not only crept into his fiction over the years, but even led to the writer making some legitimately groundbreaking contributions to the field.

He led vaccination awareness campaigns and invented a medical device that was implanted in thousands of children. And when his first wife suffered a stroke, Dahl, who would have turned 100 in September, came up with a treatment whose legacy he could not have foreseen.

"He's almost single-handedly revolutionised our approach to stroke rehabilitation," says Tom Solomon, a British neurologist, "and set in chain a whole new notion about what we should be doing with these patients, which we're still following today."

Solomon is also the author of Roald Dahl's Marvellous Medicine, a hybrid memoir-and-science book about his time treating Dahl in the final months of the author's life. (Dahl died in 1990 at age 74; the centennial of his birth is being celebrated as the Roald Dahl 100.)

Dahl's fascination with medicine began at an early age, according to Solomon. At boarding school, he kept careful note of the many ailments that sent students scurrying to the nurse's office. He took an added interest in bowel movements - which culminated in his buying a book called The Culture Of The Abdomen while living in Africa in his early 20s, then convincing his roommates to join him in trying to keep themselves regular by performing a daily regimen of complicated exercises inspired by native dance.

He's almost single-handedly revolutionised our approach to stroke rehabilitation and set in chain a whole new notion about what we should be doing with these patients, which we're still following today.

BRITISH NEUROLOGIST TOM SOLOMON, on Roald Dahl's contribution to medicine

Rather than pursue medicine as a career, however, he wound up on the military track, joining the war effort and flying in the Royal Air Force. But he quickly became reacquainted with doctors when his plane crashed in the North African desert in 1940, rendering him temporarily blind and significantly injured. He would have multiple operations on his busted spine and, for decades, he kept on his writing desk a jar of preserved spinal shavings as a kind of memento.

It was not until a series of tragedies struck his family, though, that Dahl became a contributor to the medical field. In 1960, on one of the family's extended trips from England to the United States, his four-month-old son's carriage was struck by a taxi while crossing the street in New York City; baby Theo was launched about 12m into the air before colliding with the side of a bus.

His skull was shattered, but he survived with the help of a shunt that drained excess fluid from around his brain. But these shunts contained tiny slits that could easily get blocked by bits of debris.

Theo's shunt would malfunction six times over the next nine months, according to Donald Sturrock's 2010 biography, each requiring a frantic return trip to the hospital and another intense surgery for the child.

Dahl started looking into the mechanics of shunts and discussed ways of improving them with one of Theo's doctors, Kenneth Till. With the help of toymaker/hydraulic engineer Stanley Wade, they developed the Wade-Dahl-Till valve, which was eventually fitted in 3,000 to 5,000 children around the world.

Two years later, Dahl's eldest daughter, Olivia, came down with the measles and suddenly died of a rare type of brain inflammation caused by the virus. After a prolonged and intense mourning period, he led a national awareness campaign to increase vaccination rates among British children.

His most significant contribution to medicine, however, came in the world of stroke therapy and rehabilitation.

In 1965, his first wife, American film actress Patricia Neal, suffered an aneurysm while pregnant with the couple's fifth child. She lay unconscious in the hospital for nearly three weeks and when she returned home, she could not walk and could hardly speak. So Dahl recruited a team of enthusiastic amateurs from around the village of Great Missenden to push her back to normalcy with six hours of mental and physical exercise every day.

At the time, such an aggressive approach was seen as risky, but Neal was able to return to acting just three years later, and the system pioneered by Dahl and one of the caretakers, Ms Valerie Eaton Griffith, led to a revolution in how strokes are understood and treated, according to Solomon.

Research compiled by Dominic Cheetham, an English professor at Sophia University in Japan, suggests that Neal's struggles to relearn how to speak also reinvigorated Dahl's writing. Prof Cheetham noticed that the first book he wrote following her stroke, Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator, contained twice as many new words and repurposings of older ones as any he had written previously.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2016, with the headline 'Roald Dahl's groundbreaking contributions to medicine'. Subscribe