Roald Dahl's doctor, Professor Tom Solomon, tells us about the author's fascination with medicine.
It’s not every day you get to meet a world-famous author. I was a junior doctor in Oxford 25 years ago, and Roald Dahl was one of the patients. I remember the night I met him. I was busy typing away at the ward computer when I became aware of a very tall patient wandering slowly up and down the ward, trying to peer over my shoulder to see what I found so absorbing. Eventually he stopped.
"What are you doing?"
It was a deep, booming voice. I looked up to see an enormous giant of a man, wrapped in a huge dressing gown, with large ears, and twinkling eyes. It almost felt as if the BFG were peering down at me. But it wasn’t the BFG. It was the BFG’s author.
Roald and I soon became friends, and every third night, when I was on call, I would stop by his room to chat. He told me all about his life, and his interest in all sorts of things, especially medicine. Roald used to say if he were not a writer he would like to have been a doctor. He mentioned some extraordinary medical inventions he had been involved with, often in response to family tragedies: a different approach to stroke rehabilitation; a new valve to treat hydrocephalus, or water-on-the-brain; campaigns to support measles vaccination. At the time, I did not know quite what to make of it all. Was it true? Or was the great story-teller simply teasing a gullible young doctor.
Twenty-five years later, with the 100th anniversary of Dahl’s birth approaching, I had the chance to investigate, whilst writing my book Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Medicine. I learned it was all true! If anything, over the years, Roald had underplayed his involvement in all these developments. The new approach to rehabilitation he devised, after his first wife the actress Patricia Neal had a stroke, was copied all around the world, and led to the formation of The Stroke Association. The Wade-Dahl-Till valve he invented with a neurosurgeon and an engineer, following his son’s head injury, was used on thousands of children around the world. After his daughter died of severe measles, he supported vaccination campaigns not just for measles, but for polio too.
Above: Wade-Dahl-Till Valve
I also discovered how some of these events influenced his writing: who would have thought that the BFG’s weird Gobblefunk language was inspired by the strange words Patricia spoke whilst learning to talk again after her stroke? Or that there may be some science behind Roald’s claim that the “great bash on the head”, when his plane came down in World War II, contributed to his becoming a writer?
With the family’s permission I was able to delve into Roald’s archives, and personal letters at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. The biggest problem I had was trying to walk through the museum to get to the archives, without getting distracted by all the fun and games.
I now work in Liverpool as a professor of neurology, researching brain infections, and caring for patients with the whole range of brain diseases. Science communication, explaining to people what we do, and why, is an important part of the job. Through the book, I have been able to reach a new audience, people who would never normally pick up a popular science book. The workshops and shows have allowed me to use Roald’s life and stories to teach children about how the body works, what goes wrong, and how we can fix it. A quarter of a century after the author’s death, what would Roald Dahl have made of this recognition of his marvellous medicine? He would probably have been slightly bemused, but delighted, and very proud.
Tom Solomon is Professor of Neurology at the Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust, and Director of the Institute of Infection and Global Health at the University of Liverpool. He tweets @RunningMadProf. Visit www.tomsolomon.co.uk for more information about his book, Roald Dahl's Marvellous Medicine, all the proceeds of which are going to charities, including Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity.
Meet Roald Dahl's Doctor, Professor Tom Solomon at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden, Bucks on Saturday 11 March.
You can buy Tom Solomon's book, Roald Dahl's Marvellous Medicine from the Roald Dahl shop.