Did George Orwell Pick Up TB During the Spanish Civil War?

A new technique was able to pull tuberculosis bacteria and morphine residue from a letter the author sent in 1938, ten years befor his diagnosis

George Orwell
Wikimedia Commons

In the early 20th century, tuberculosis killed one in seven people in the United States and Europe, and likely ended the lives of as many if not more in other parts of the world. One of its many victims was George Orwell (real name Eric Blair), who died of the disease in 1950 at the age of 46. But just when and where, exactly, literary historians wondered, did the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four first contract the infection? Now, reports Jack Malvern at The Times, signs of the disease have been found on a letter sent from the author, suggesting he picked up the disease while volunteering during the Spanish Civil War.

The traces of disease come from a letter that Orwell sent to Sergey Dinamov, editor of the Soviet journal Foreign Literature, in 1937, soon after he returned home from the war and ten years before he was officially diagnosed with TB. Physicist Gleb Zilberstein analyzed the letter now held by the Russian state archive of literature and art. Using a special non-destructive ethyl-vinyl acetate film, he pulled microscopic proteins and particles off the letter, including Mycobacterium tuberculosis and traces of morphine.

Zilberstein and his team then compared the bacteria to records of the disease in Spain kept by the Comintern (which was originally founded in 1919 by leading members of Russia’s Communist party as the Communist International). It turns out, Orwell’s TB was very similar to the characteristics of the disease in Spain at the time. Zilberstein suggests that the writer picked up the infection at a Spanish hospital after being wounded in the neck by a sniper’s bullet. “The level of infection was very high and the [hygiene standards of] hospitals were very poor,” he tells Malvern. “The civil war in Spain was the last war in the 20th century without penicillin. Most wounded people got infections in hospital in Spain and mortality was higher from infections.”

There is also a possibility that the infection came from contaminated food. But Orwell’s dismal medical history and travels make it difficult to know exactly when his symptoms began. He was known to have a respiratory ailment from birth, likely a disease of the bronchial tubes which caused him trouble all his life. Kat Eschner reports for Smithsonian.com that researchers have previously speculated that he picked up TB as a child in India or perhaps during a 1922 stint in Burma, which he was sent home from with dengue fever. After that, he had pneumonia several times in the 1930s and the year after coming home from Spain he had another major respiratory illness.

“Then he was really seriously ill for the first time in 1938. That was when they started to say: ‘You’re tubercular,’ ” DJ Taylor, author of Orwell: The Life, tells Malvern. He says the idea that he picked up the disease during the Spanish Civil War and started showing signs of it when he returned home makes sense. “That wouldn’t surprise me at all. In early 1938 he was so bad that he had to be taken off in an ambulance — terrible hemorrhaging and that kind of thing. He took ages to recover.”

In fact, he never fully recovered, and his health deteriorated over the next decade. Eschner reports that in 1946 Orwell took up residence on the island of Jura in Scotland in order to pen his final book, Nineteen Eighty-Four. There his health all but collapsed. While writing the book, he suffered pain, fever, weight loss, night sweats and underwent various therapies to combat the disease, including some of the earliest antibiotic treatments. That suffering, Eschner explains, may have helped inform the scenes of torture the book's protagonist Winston Smith undergoes at the Ministry of Love. In fact, the entire novel is likely informed by his disease. “The circumstances surrounding the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four make a haunting narrative that helps to explain the bleakness of Orwell's dystopia,” Robert McCrum wrote in an analysis of the book for The Guardian in 2009. “Here was an English writer, desperately sick, grappling alone with the demons of his imagination in a bleak Scottish outpost in the desolate aftermath of the second world war.”

This is not the only writer that Zilberstein and his team have diagnosed from beyond the grave. In 2015, Zilberstein used his special film on the manuscript of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, written while the Soviet satirist was dying of kidney disease. Not only did the analysis find morphine traces left on the pages, they also found three biomarkers for nephritic disease, which the writer was suffering from. Earlier this year, the team also published a study in which they were able to pull traces of the tuberculosis that killed playwright Anton Chekhov from the shirt he wore on the day he died.

Editor's note, August 2, 2018: A previous version of this story identified Gleb Zilberstein as Gleb Gilberstein. We regret the mistake.

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