Inside Roald Dahl's Own Measles Tragedy

In late '80s, author shared the story of daughter Olivia
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 2, 2015 1:29 PM CST
Updated Feb 7, 2015 4:24 PM CST
Inside Roald Dahl's Own Measles Tragedy
This April 11, 1969 file photo shows actress Patricia Neal and her husband Roald Dahl arriving at the Academy Awards.   (AP Photo)

In recent weeks, hardly a day has passed without a big measles-related headline, but one of the most-talked-about stories to surface actually dates to 1988—and, before that, 1962. In that earlier year, famed children's book author Roald Dahl lost his 7-year-old daughter to measles encephalitis, which the Washington Post terms one of the disease's "worst complications." Per the CDC, the brain inflammation occurs roughly 6 days after the onset of the rash, and did so in about one out of every 1,000 cases reported between 1985 and 1992; the fatality rate is 15%. In 1988, Dahl shared his experience in a leaflet published by the UK's Sandwell Health Authority in support of the then-newly-available measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, reports the Guardian. It reads in part (in full at io9):

  • "One morning, when [Olivia] was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything. 'Are you feeling all right?' I asked her. 'I feel all sleepy,' she said. In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead."
He goes on to explains that in 1962, there was nothing doctors could do to save Olivia from measles encephalitis—and more than two decades later as he wrote those words, that was still the case. "On the other hand, there is today something that parents can do": Immunize their children, something he couldn't do when Olivia was young because a safe vaccine wasn't yet available. The Guardian notes that Dahl's widow said the author spent his life unable to talk about Olivia; in his 1988 writing, he noted he dedicated James and the Giant Peach and The BFG to Olivia, the latter after her death. "I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children." (More measles stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.