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The Life, Times and Marvellous Medicine of Roald Dahl

By Molly Winter, Account Executive, Publicis Resolute


When you think of Roald Dahl, you probably picture your favourite book, character, or Quentin Blake illustration (for me, it’s Matilda J). But our recent Culture Club outing to listen to ‘Roald Dahl and the Big Friendly Neuroscientist’, showed us that the magic of the children’s author wasn’t only in his writing.

During the fascinating talk from Professor Tom Solomon, we learned that he was part of the team that treated Dahl in the last few weeks of his life. During those weeks the two struck up a firm friendship and bonded over their shared passion for medicine. Dahl always said, if he hadn’t been an author, he’d have been a doctor.

Here are three stories that, though less happy than his usual books, showcase exactly how much impact Dahl had on the world of medicine:

  • When in New York in 1960, his four-month-old son, Theo, was hit by a taxi, crushing his skull. The brain injuries he suffered led to hydrocephalus, a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. This could be treated with a shunt, and Theo seemed to improve, only for Dahl to realise his baby no longer smiled. It turned out that Theo’s shunt had clogged, which had caused the spinal fluid to put pressure on the brain again, temporarily blinding the little boy. For Dahl, watching his son have another shunt fitted only to know it would clog again, was unbearable. So he applied his huge creativity to the problem and enlisted a hydraulic engineer and model plane maker, Stanley Wade, and a neurosurgeon Kenneth Till – together they created the Wade-Dahl-Till valve. By the time the valve was used, Theo had happily recovered and no longer had a need for it, but thousands of other children would benefit in the years since.

  • Dahl would also go on to change the way we think about vaccinations. Sadly in 1962, when she was only seven years old, Dahl’s daughter Olivia contracted a severe form of measles and died of encephalitis. Dahl was profoundly affected by her death and couldn’t speak directly about it for years, but still campaigned indefatigably for measles vaccine campaigns, constantly badgering the government to do more. His powerful pro-vaccination letter is still used in vaccination campaigns today.
  • Yet more impressive evidence of his ingenuity and perseverance was his reaction to his wife’s loss of speech after a debilitating stroke in 1965. Dahl and a group of neighbours set up a six-hours-a-day regime to help her speak normally again, and went on to write a guide on stroke recovery that would eventually lead to the formation of The Stroke Association.

Dahl was understandably proud of his achievements in writing, but he remained incredibly coy and unassuming about the great work he’d done for medicine throughout his life. During what could only be classed as a “whizzpopper” of a talk, I was blown away to hear just how remarkable he really was and left newly inspired by my childhood hero!

If you’d to learn more about his life and work, definitely pick up the book – Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Medicine. Not only does offer some fascinating insight on the man himself; all proceeds go to charities working in areas that were of interest to him.

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