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The Medical Lives of Great Writers

by John J. Ross

Pub Date: Oct. 16th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-312-60076-1
Publisher: St. Martin's

A doctor looks at symptoms afflicting writers from the Elizabethan era to the mid-20th century.

Ross, an infectious disease specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard, is well qualified to take on this topic. He approaches his subjects chronologically, giving the book an added element of medical history, which is sometimes as interesting as the attempts to diagnose the subjects from the occasionally sketchy evidence. Shakespeare may well have suffered from syphilis, but references to it in his works aren’t necessarily proof that he did. Ross knows this, of course, and he makes a good effort to bring in other evidence. Other than specialists in literary history, most readers will find out more about these writers than they have ever known. That is especially true for the medical material. Who knew there were (reasonably) effective treatments for venereal disease during the Renaissance? The discussions of Swift’s dementia and Milton’s blindness offer windows into the social milieus in which the writers moved, as well as their rather difficult personalities. Melville and Hawthorne were friends, and Oliver Wendell Holmes treated both in his role as a physician. The role of Ezra Pound in advancing the careers of Yeats and Joyce, and several other top-rank writers, may almost excuse his support for fascism in World War II. Ross offers plenty of other surprising connections between topics. The book’s weakest points are the author’s occasional attempts to fictionalize some of his subjects’ experiences.

Especially recommended for readers who enjoy historical context with their great books.