“I am a lot better, but I had a bad fortnight with the secondary effects of the streptomycin. I suppose with all these drugs it’s rather a case of sinking the ship to get rid of the rats.” George Orwell: A Life in Letters
On returning home to Australia, after three-weeks on the trail of Orwell in Spain, Paris, London and Southwold, there was a message waiting for me to contact a woman who had noticed my talk about Orwell – for the 70th anniversary of Nineteen Eighty-Four – advertised in the local newspaper and wanted to share a story.
I phoned Denise who told me she “owes her existence on the planet to George Orwell”. Her father had tuberculosis and was at Hairmyres Hospital, in East Kilbride, on the outskirts of Glasgow contemporaneously with the chronically ill George Orwell.
In 1948 he was given Orwell’s streptomycin.
Tuberculosis and Orwell
Exactly when George Orwell contracted tuberculosis is unknown. He always had weak lungs and was susceptible to pneumonia. The first writing we have about the man who was to become Orwell was courtesy of his mother’s diary when he was a baby. Ida Blair comments that her son was not all well and the doctor believed he had “bronchitis”.
Orwell was certainly tested for TB in the 1930s and claimed that we was clear of the affliction. The most likely time he contracted it seems to be during 1937 when he fought, and was badly wounded, in the Spanish Civil War. In 1938 Orwell was diagnosed formally with the disease and recuperated in Morocco. He lived for a little more than a decade longer, often being hospitalised because of his worsening TB.
Orwell’s struggle to write his final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, while battling the disease at Barnhill, on the remote Scottish island of Jura, has often been written about. Orwell spent many months in Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride unable to work, dying from the corruption in his left lung.
Orwell wrote a letter to David Astor from the hospital explaining the potential of streptomycin to treat his TB on the 1st February 1948 and was provided with the drug speedily during that same month:
“Before anything else I must tell you of something Dr Dick has just said to me. He says I am getting on quite well, but slowly, & it would speed recovery if one had some streptomycin. This is only obtainable in the USA, & because of dollars the B.O.T. (or whoever it is) won’t normally grant a licence. One can however buy it there if one has some dollars. He suggested that you with your American connections might arrange to buy it & I could pay you. He wants 70 grammes, & it costs about £1 a gramme. I would be awfully obliged if you could put this transaction through for me, as no doubt you can do it quicker than I could myself. There is no twist or illegality about this, Dr Dick says, & the stuff is not difficult to send. I suppose it will mean paying out about 300 dollars. If you want to be repaid in dollars, I think I have enough, as I had started building up a reserve of dollars in the US, otherwise I can pay you in sterling. I must in either case pay you, as it is a considerable sum & of course the hospital can’t pay it.” George Orwell: A Life in Letters
Orwell commenced the fifty-day course of treatment with streptomycin on 19 or 20 February 1948. He wrote about the experience in his last Literary Notebook over a year later, on 24th March, 1949:
“Before I forget them it is worth writing down the secondary symptoms produced by streptomycin when I was treated with it last year. Streptomycin was then almost a new drug & had never been used at that hospital before. The symptoms in my case were quite different from those described in the American medical journal in which we read the subject up beforehand.
At first, though the streptomycin seemed to produce an almost immediate improvement in my health, there were no secondary symptoms, except that a sort of discoloration appeared at the base of my finger & toe nails. Then my face became noticeably redder & the skin had a tendency to flake off, & a sort of rash appeared all over my body, especially down my back. There was no itching associated with this. After abt 3 weeks 1 got a severe sore throat, which did not go away & was not affected by sucking penicillin lozenges. It was very painful to swallow & I had to have a special diet for some weeks. There was now ulceration with blisters in my throat & on the insides of my cheeks, & the blood kept coming up into little blisters on my lips. At night these burst & bled considerably, so that in the morning my lips were always stuck together with blood & I had to bathe them before I could open my mouth. Meanwhile my nails had disintegrated at the roots & the disintegration grew, as it were, up the nail, new nails forming beneath meanwhile. My hair began to come out, & one or two patches of quite white hair appeared at the back (previously it was only speckled with grey.)
After 50 days the streptomycin, which had been injected at the rate of 1 gramme a day, was discontinued. The lips etc. healed almost immediately & the rash went away, though not quite so promptly. My hair stopped coming out & went back to its normal colour, though I think with more grey in it than before. The old nails ended by dropping out altogether, & some months after leaving hospital I had only ragged tips, which kept splitting, to the new nails. Some of the toenails did not drop out. Even now my nails are not normal. They are much more corrugated than before, & a great deal thinner, with a constant tendency to split if I do not keep them very short.
At that time the Board of Trade would not give import permits for streptomycin, except to a few hospitals for experimental purposes. One had to get hold of fit by some kind of wire-pulling. It cost £1 a gramme, plus 60 % Purchase Tax.”
From, Our Job is to Make Life Worth Living (1949-1950), The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 20,
James “Jimmy” Lyell
“The streptomycin after only one dose had the most disastrous results, so they dropped it promptly…” George Orwell: A Life in Letters
Orwell’s bad luck with the drug that would have saved him helped at least three other people to survive their tuberculosis. Denise Lyell told me her family anecdote on the phone and mentioned that “two of the doctors’ wives also received the drug”. This is mentioned by Crick in his biography of Orwell too.
Denise, in her own words, relates the story of her father’s good luck:
“My father is James Lyell, known as “Jimmy”. He was born in Tarbolton, Ayrshire in 1919. He left home and joined the British Navy at 15 in 1934.
By WWII he was a Chief Petty Officer on an aircraft carrier in the Fleet Air Arm stationed in Sydney where he met and married my mother. He returned to Britain with his ship and when the war ended Mum went to Scotland as a war bride on one of the aircraft carriers.
Almost as soon as Mum arrived, Dad was invalided out of the Navy with TB. He was sent to Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride where he stayed for 2 and 1/2 years. As I explained, he eventually got access to streptomycin indirectly through George Orwell and recovered enough to be discharged from hospital in 1949. In the following few years both my brother and I were born.”
It has always seemed that Orwell’s luck was poor in regards to his TB and not just through being allergic to streptomycin. Lawrence O’Shaughnessy, the brother of Orwell’s first wife, Eileen, was a leading medical expert in TB treatment. Unfortunately, he was killed at Dunkirk in 1940. Potentially this may have made a big difference to Orwell’s health.
On the 70th anniversary of the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is wonderful to have an uplifting story about Orwell, from a local person in Wollongong, to share.
Featured image: James Lyell is on the right side of the photograph in a checked dressing gown (courtesy of Denise Lyell).
Crick, Bernard (1992) George Orwell: A Life, Penguin.
Davison, Peter (2013) George Orwell: A Life in Letters, Liveright
Lyell, Denise (2019) Emails and photos, 29th May-6th June
Orwell, George (1998) Our Job is to Make Life Worth Living (1949-1950), The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 20, Davison, Peter (ed.) London: Secker & Warburg