Study: George Orwell's Illnesses Influenced '1984'

Writer George Orwell poses in this undated photo at an unknown location. Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, India in 1903 and died in 1950. (AP Photo)

The gloomy stories of George Orwell were likely influenced by the writer's own ailments, including tuberculosis and infertility, according to a new study.

Orwell is best known for his novels "1984" and "Animal Farm."

The new study, by John Ross of Caritas St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston, recounts Orwell's sickly life. The research is slated to be published in the Dec. 1 issue of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Orwell was born in India in 1903 as Eric Blair. He suffered multiple bouts of bronchitis and other respiratory ailments, Ross writes. As a young man, Orwell had several episodes of bacterial pneumonia, and also contracted dengue fever while in Burma. He was a heavy smoker, and he suffered fits of coughing from a condition called bronchiectasis.

In 1938, Orwell went to a sanatorium because he was coughing up blood. He was eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis. Treatment consisted of simple bed rest and good nutrition, and he was discharged several months later.

Eight years later, depressed by his wife’s death, Orwell moved to a windy and damp Scottish island. His health worsened significantly just as he was working on the first draft of "1984," Ross reports. Fever, weight loss, and night sweats sent him to the hospital, where he underwent “collapse therapy,” a treatment designed to close the dangerous cavities that form in the chests of tuberculosis patients.

Relying on Orwell's own descriptions of the treatment, Ross says it "may have influenced the depiction of the tortures of Winston Smith in the Ministry of Love" in "1984."

Ross also figures Orwell drew from firsthand knowledge of the wasting effects of tuberculosis. A passage from the novel:

"But the truly frightening thing was the emaciation of his body. The barrel of the ribs was as narrow as that of a skeleton: the legs had shrunk so that the knees were thicker than the thighs…the curvature of the spine was astonishing."

Some respiratory ailments are known to lead to infertility, and Orwell mused on the topic in his letters, Ross says.

"Orwell himself told his friends that 1984 would have been less gloomy had he not been so ill—it was a very dark, disturbing, and pessimistic work," Ross said. Orwell's illnesses "made him a better and more empathetic writer, in that his sense of human suffering made his writing more universal."

Orwell died in 1950.

Live Science Staff
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