The medical journey of Charles Dickens

Lea Mendes
Lisboa, Portugal

 

spirits of Ignorance and Want
John Leech illustration – Scrooge confronts Ignorance and Want in A Christmas Carol [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At the time of the London Great Exhibition of 1851, the United Kingdom was the wealthiest and most industrialized country in the world.1 The most popular and quintessential Victorian writer was Charles Dickens (1812-1870), who had written Oliver Twist (1838) and A Christmas Carol (1843). As for the medical aspects of his life, he was quite avant-garde. Dickens suffered from several medical conditions, also wrote about different diseases and contributed to English society not only in the literary aspect but also in the human manner. Dickens’s interests included crime, education, medicine, and the class system.

Regarding his medical conditions, Dickens had what today could be considered an obsessive compulsive disorder. He is thought to have suffered from epilepsy as a child and possibly throughout life. Several of his characters experience “fits” resembling seizures (“the falling sickness” as it was then known). In 1841 he suffered from an anal fistula and was operated without anesthetic.  In 1859 he developed what appears to have been gonorrhea, very likely treated with silver nitrate. Dickens suffered from insomnia avant la lettre. He is known to have taken long walks at night. He said “walk and be happy, walk and be healthy.”2 At the time of his death, the obvious remedy for insomnia was either alcohol (gin for the poor and whiskey or brandy for the wealthy) or the easily accessible opium in one form or another, the most popular being laudanum, a tincture of alcohol and morphine.3

In his early thirties Dickens would become depressed at the start of each new novel, the first being The Chimes, in 1844.4 His depression worsened with age, and he eventually separated from his wife, Catherine Hogarth, mother of his ten children. On June 9, 1865, Dickens and his mistress, actress Ellen Nelly Fernan, survived a train accident that killed ten people and wounded dozens more. Dickens burst into action, ministering to injured and dying passengers with brandy and water. Eventually his depression brought his creativity to a near halt, and his previously prolific production almost ceased. Dickens wrote, “I begin to feel it more in my head. I sleep well and eat well, but I write half a dozen notes, and turn faint and sick… I am getting right, though still low in pulse and very nervous.” After this traumatic experience, Dickens writes about being unable to travel by rail because he kept getting the feeling that the train carriage was tipping to over on one side, which was “inexpressibly distressing.” Post traumatic stress disorder was first mentioned by Herodotus, Shakespeare and then Dickens; it entered our vocabulary only around 1980.4

In 1868 Dickens also suffered mild dyslexia.5 In 1869 he had a mild stroke. His family doctor, Frank Beard sent him for consultation to Sir Thomas Watson, who advised him to reduce his workload.6 On June 8, 1870, at dinner, Dickens stood up and collapsed; was diagnosed with apoplexy, and he died on the next day. The stroke may have been caused partially by opium use as a painkiller. He left his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished.

During his visit to North America in 1842, Dickens visited two institutions in South Boston and in New York. He noted that madness is “the most dreadful visitation to which our nature is exposed.” He also visited public institutions that treated the blind, the deaf, and the mute. Dicken wrote on insanity in works such as Household Words, Sketches by Boz, and The Pickwick Papers, showing that drunkenness was a disease in the first half of the nineteenth century.7 Dickens extolled the benefits of mesmerism (hypnosis), which he used to treat his wife´s headaches and regularly practiced in public (he himself refused to be put into a trance). He made dramatic readings, sometimes to raise funds for charity. He played a major role in the preservation of the first pediatric hospital in the British Empire (Hospital for Sick Children), which opened in 1852 on Great Ormond Street. Dickens highlights the poor quality of nurses in his book Martin Chuzzlewit (nursing began to change during the Crimean War thanks to Florence Nightingale). As an activist and reformer, Dickens facilitated the development of shelters for homeless women (the Urania Cottage was established in 1846), and the development of orthopedics.8 As he portrays in Dombey and Son, he had learned about the benefits of removing people with diseases from London slums and bringing them to the seaside so they could benefit from fresh air and a more hygienic environment.

It has also been suggested that Dickens described a variety of other conditions— tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, asthma, restless leg syndrome, Parkinson´s disease, chorea, Tourette´s syndrome, cerebellar ataxia, torticollis, supranuclear palsy, stroke, epilepsy, and the complication of alcoholism. Dickens might have suffered from asthma.9

He was friends with Dr. Frederick F.H. Quin (1799-1878) physician to Queen Victoria´s father-in-law, Prince Leopold and father of Prince Albert, and with the painter Landseer. Thackeray was a personal friend of Charles Dickens and godfather to one of his children. Through his actions the London Homeopathic Hospital was founded in 1850.10

In the 1860s William Treloar attended one of Dickens´s public readings and was inspired to help crippled children (hearing about Tiny Tim, who suffered from Pott´s disease or renal tubular acidosis, in A Christmas Carol), and worked to establish the Lord Mayor Treloar Cripples´ Hospital and College in Alton, England.

Charles Dickens speaks to people from all walks of life. Having entered the working world at a young age and experiencing several physical ailments, he conveys a great deal of sensitivity. By understanding the world around him and expressing it in such a captivating manner, he remains one of the most important authors of English literature.

 

 References

  1. “Charles Dickens (Parts 1 through 3).” YouTube. 2010. Accessed March 31, 2016:
    1. www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEYdX5_U0Yg
    2. www.youtube.com/watch?v=8R5APXDJ6fE
    3. www.youtube.com/watch?v=LXXm2QtBxts
  2. “The Sum of the Whole Is This: Walk and Be Happy; Walk and Be Healthy. The Best Way to Lengthen out Our Days Is to Walk Steadily and with a Purpose.–Charles Dickens.” Minervas Moxie. March 13, 2013. Accessed March 31, 2016. https://deannalynnwulff.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/the-sum-of-the-whole-is-this-walk-and-be-happy-walk-and-be-healthy-the-best-way-to-lengthen-out-our-days-is-to-walk-steadily-and-with-a-purpose-charles-dickens/.
  3. Jim Horne. “Insomnia-Victorian style”. The British Psychological Society, October 2008. Vol.2. Accessed March 19, 2016. http://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-21/edition-10/insomnia-victorian-style
  4. Charlie Jane Anders, “From ´Irritable Heart´ to ´Shellshock´- Traumatic Stress Became a Disease”. 4th April 2012. Accessed March 19, 2016. http://io9.gizmodo.com/5898560/from-irritable-heart-to-shellshock-post-traumatic-stress-became-a-disease
  5. Mcmanus, Ic. “Charles Dickens: A Neglected Diagnosis.”The Lancet358, no. 9299 (2001): 2158-161. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(01)07227-0. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/medical-education/reprints/2008-DickensQuarterly-NeglectedDiagnosis.pdf
  6. 7 Things You Didn´t Know About Charles Dickens. Accessed March 17, 2016www.history.com/news/7-things-you-didnt-know-about-charles-dickens
  7. Kostas Makras. “Dickensian Intemperance: The Representation of the Drunkard in ´The Drunkard´s Death´ and The Pickwick Papers”. 19:Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 28th April 2010. Accessed March 19, 2016. www.19.bbk.ac.uk/articles/10.16995/ntn.528/
  8. Nicholas Cambridge, MD, “From the Slaughter House to Mr Pickwick : Charles Dickens and Medicine”. Accessed March 24, 2016. http://www.buckingham.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Charles-Dickens-and-Medicine.pdf
  9. Meir Kruger, “Charles Dickens: Impact on Medicine and Society”, Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 15th June 2012. Accessed March 18, 2016 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3365094
  10. “History of the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine.” Accessed March 19, 2016. www.uclh.nhs.uk/OURSERVICES/OURHOSPITALS/RLHIM/Pages/historyofrlhim.aspx

 


 

LEA MENDES was born on February 7, 1985, in Libson, Portugal, and grew up in a Portuguese-French environment with Canadian and European cultural influences, graduating from the University of Lisbon. She has sung in various choirs and continues her interests in a variety of cultural activities.