31 March 2010

Children's writer Roald Dahl's contributions to neurology

By Susan Perry
Published Thu, Mar 18 2010 9:24 am

Although I’ve never read the late Roald Dahl’s ghost stories and other works of adult fiction, nor his autobiographical volumes, I’m a huge fan of his children’s books (such classics as “James and the Giant Peach,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and the pull-the-covers-up-over-your-head-scary “The Witches”). Best read-aloud-to-kids books ever.

So, when British psychologist Vaughan Bell blogged in MindHacks earlier this week about an article that focused on Dahl’s contributions to neurology, I immediately read it.

The 2008 article [PDF], which appeared in the journal Advances in Clinical Neuroscience and Rehabilitation, begins by describing how Dahl experienced a World War II head injury (he was a pilot) that temporarily left him blind. The article’s author, British neurologist Andrew Larner, also suggests that Dahl later exhibited what may have been symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“[F]or example,” notes Larner, “when writing in his famous shed, he had to have a particular type of paper (yellow American Legal), and both a particular brand and a specific number (6) of pencils.”

But Dahl’s real interest in — and contributions to — clinical neurology stemmed from two personal tragedies. The first occurred in New York in 1960, when Dahl’s infant son, Theo, was injured in a car accident. The boy developed some brain damage and secondary hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid inside the skull that can damage the brain if not drained, or shunted, away.

Dahl took a very active role in his son’s neurological care. Writes Larner:

The family returned to England and Theo came under the care of Kenneth Till, a neurosurgeon at Great Ormond Street Hospital (1956-80). Prompted by Dahl, and in collaboration with Stanley Wade, an hydraulic engineer, a new type of shunt valve was designed. Reported in the Lancet by Kenneth Till, under the rubric of “New Inventions,” the special characteristics were reported to be “low resistance, ease of sterilization, no reflux, robust construction, and negligible risk of blockage.” The author acknowledged that the valve was “designed by Mr. Stanley C. Wade…with the assistance of Mr. Roald Dahl and myself.” The Wade-Dahl-Till (or WDT) valve became widely used.

The second tragedy that linked Dahl to the world of neurology occurred a few years later:

In 1965, Dahl’s first wife, the American actress Patricia Neal, suffered a stroke due to a ruptured intracranial aneurysm, one of the consequences of which was marked aphasia [an inability to communicate through spoken and/or written words], a potential career-ending misfortune for an actress. … Dahl appealed to Valerie Eaton Griffith, who lived in the same village, for help. With Dahl, she devised a rota of volunteer carers to engage the patient in conversation and hence to stimulate language recovery. This approach, different from formal speech therapy, was documented in Griffith’s [1970] book. … It earned the approbation, as “treatment of a surreptitious character,” of no less a neurological figure than Macdonald Critchely, and still has advocates today.

Dahl, who died in 1990, left behind, in addition to his wonderful writings, the Roald Dahl Foundation, which continues to fund research into neurological conditions affecting children.

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