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Orwell's Cough: Diagnosing the Medical Maladies and Last Gasps of the Great Writers [Hardcover]

John Ross
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
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Book Description

4 Oct 2012

“The doctor suddenly appeared beside Will, startling him. Though he smiled reassuringly, the poet noticed that he kept a safe distance. In a soothing, urbane voice, he explained the treatment: stewed prunes to evacuate the bowels; succulent meats to ease digestion; cinnabar and the sweating tub… Desperate diseases called for desperate remedies.”

Did Will Shakespeare’s doctors addle his brain with cinnabar and mercury? Was Jane Eyre inspired by the plagued school that claimed the Brontë clan? Did writing 1984 kill George Orwell? Dr John Ross of Harvard Medical School opens his surgery to consult with the likes of Milton, Swift, Melville, Joyce, and Jack London, exploring the history of medicine as never before, from the Bard’s cloaked visits to Southwark to cure his unsavoury rashes to the arsenic-and-horse-serum jabs given for Yeats’s fevers. With novelistic flair and deep expertise, Ross reveals a wholly absorbing new view on the writer’s life.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Oneworld Publications (4 Oct 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1851689516
  • ISBN-13: 978-1851689514
  • Product Dimensions: 20 x 13.4 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 449,473 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John Ross was born in Woodstock, New Brunswick, Canada. He received his BA in English from Saint Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and his MD degree from the Faculty of Medicine, McGill University. He is board-certified in internal medicine and infectious diseases, and is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.

Product Description


"Readers will find out more about these writers than they have ever known... [and] who knew there were (reasonably) effective treatments for venereal disease during the Renaissance?… Ross offers plenty of other surprising connections."

(Kirkus Reviews)

‘Gripping and illuminating. Ross enters many different worlds and brings them to life.’ 

(Evening Standard)

‘These sorts of literary detective stories are always interesting, especially when they involve, as these do, lots of gossip and guessing games. Ross has the instincts of a storyteller… fascinating and bizarre… with the bonus that [his] informed speculations might well hit the bullseye a few times’ 



“Orwell's Cough is riveting medical detective work. John Ross offers a truly unique perspective on the literary giants, and he will make you profoundly thankful for modern medicine!”

(Alex Boese - bestselling author of Elephants on Acid and Electric Sheep)

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Science and Fiction 7 Oct 2012
Through details of famous writers' medical maladies, John Ross explores their lives and literary works. What killed George Orwell: the stress of writing 1984, the damp and dreary weather on the Scottish island of Jura, or bad treatments for a childhood illness? If Milton had not gone blind, would he have written Paradise Lost? Did Jack London's self-medication lead to his physical weakening and eventual death? Also under investigation are Shakespeare's syphilis, Jonathan Swift's dementia, the Brontė sisters' tuberculosis, Nathaniel Hawthorne's stomach cancer, and the many maladies of Herman Melville. As well as plenty of interesting detail about writers' lives, there are tidbits about medicine through the ages, such as the Ancient Roman method of treating venereal disease.
The author is the Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, so he certainly knows his science; what's wonderful about this book is that he knows his novels too. The prose reads well, and each chapter has the drama and narrative arc of fiction. The details of the writers' lives are fascinating, and it's enjoyable to trace how their physical ailments may have affected their work. Orwell's Cough manages the perfect balance: enough medicalese to interest the biologically-minded, and enough details about writers' lives for the literary-minded. As soon as I finished the book, I turned right back to the start and read it again.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not all that I hoped for 12 Dec 2012
By Mark L
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I brought this book based on a review within bbc focus magazine. Usually this does me well and I enjoy their suggested reading. This sadly was not the case for orwell's cough.

Focusing on the medical conditions of some of the great literature writers the author guides you through their condition its historical relevance and his view on this issue. Both my wife and myself read this book and agreed that it is very repetitive. The Author follows a similar patter throughout his chapters and this leave the reader a firm knowledge of what will be coming next. I liken this to being on a journey similar to your trip to work, you know it is different but at the same time very familiar. I think the root of this problem is the author's background. Originally written for a medical group of people it is clear that the author is a very analytical and methodical person. Qualities that are useful as a doctor, less useful as an author.

This negative element does not distract from the content being very interesting and if you pick this book up you will learn something new (possibly). However you will not be entertained in any sense and you may be tempted to put this book down over turning the page to find out 'what happens next'.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This is a fascinating book that works both as forensic medicine and literature. The first chapter on one William Shakespeare was overall the least engaging. There was more than a dram of speculation, which given the time period and historic record is perhaps excusable. I almost put the book down at that point (a large draft of belladonna with newt urine by pipette). But, persisted and was rewarded. Mr Ross has sound knowledge of the writers, their personal history and works. He also describes the development of medicine and the love of doctors to kill or seriously maim their patients with the orthodoxy of the day. For those who believe science is the only model of value in the cake shop today, it is a lesson on there is no single truth/silver bullet. Science remains experimentation, trial and elimination and sometimes that includes the poor, suffering patient. The doctor cannot and does not know everything and not everything they know is necessarily sound. A reflection for today, will a John Ross of the future be describing chemotherapy or other cancer treatments that may have polished of writers such as Christopher Hitchens. All very state of the art but more primitive than we may understand or give weight to. Reading books such as this inform us it is unlikely we recognise diseases that in later times may become obvious but which we today are blissfully unaware of as we continue to shorten our lives with a range of vices, treatments, lifestyles, habits and environmental ticking bombs. Mine is supporting Newcastle United, which I am told has shortened my life considerably. All I can say is thank goodness I did not support Manchester United or I would have had no life at all! Read more ›
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Different 22 Mar 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Fascinating. Only wish there were more books which investigate medical histories of people from the past. I'd love to know what really ailed Florence Nightingale for example.
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