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Orwell's Cough

The Hidden Sources of Love Character and Achievement

John Ross

WORKING as an infectious disease specialist at a Boston teaching hospital in 2000, John Ross had to a deliver a rather unanticipated presentation on syphilis. Although the condition had been a scourge affecting half a million Americans 50 years earlier, by the end of the 20th century infection rates were at historical lows. So when they unexpectedly began to surge upwards, many young doctors had never seen or had to diagnose cases. Ross had to get back to basics.

While compiling his presentation, he decided to include some historical literary references to the dreaded "pox" to make things a bit more interesting. Flipping through Shakespeare's plays, he found ample material. His presentation soon grew into something more. Digging deeper, he found clues suggesting that the Bard may have battled syphilis himself. Ross wrote up his research in an article for Clinical Infectious Diseases (vol 40, p 399), and soon found himself explaining it to Jon Stewart on the satirical US TV programme The Daily Show.

He was clearly onto something. In Orwell's Cough, Ross revisits his case for a syphilitic Shakespeare, and attempts posthumous diagnoses of other literary greats - from W. B. Yeats's battle with brucellosis to Emily Brontë's tuberculosis and Asperger's syndrome. As he constructs the medical portraits, he delves into family history, romantic melodrama and quirkier aspects of the writers' lives. The result is a fascinating, surprising and at times hilarious compilation.

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