Roald Dahl, Who Lost His Daughter to Measles, Writes a Heartbreaking Letter about Vaccinations: “It Is Almost a Crime to Allow Your Child to Go Unimmunised”

dahl vaccine

Image by Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons

Generations of us know Roald Dahl as, first and foremost, the author of popular children's novels like The BFGThe WitchesCharlie and the Chocolate Factory (that book of the "subversive" lost chapter), and James and the Giant Peach. We remember reading those with great delight, and some of us even made it into the rumored literary territory of his "stories for grown-ups." But few of us, at least if we grew up in the past few decades, will have familiarized ourselves with all the purposes to which Dahl put his pen. Like many fine writers, Dahl always drew something from his personal experience, and few personal experiences could have had as much impact as the sudden death of his measles-stricken seven-year-old daughter Olivia in 1962. A chapter of Donald Sturrock's biography Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, excerpted at The Telegraph, tells of both the event itself and Dahl's stoic, writerly (according to some, perhaps too stoic and too writerly) way of handling it.

But good did come out of Dahl's response to the tragedy. In 1986, he wrote a leaflet for the Sandwell Health Authority entitled Measles: A Dangerous Illness, which tells Olivia's story and provides a swift and well-supported argument for universal vaccination against the disease:

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she 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.

The measles had turned into a terrible thing called measles encephalitis and there was nothing the doctors could do to save her. That was twenty-four years ago in 1962, but even now, if a child with measles happens to develop the same deadly reaction from measles as Olivia did, there would still be nothing the doctors could do to help her.

On the other hand, there is today something that parents can do to make sure that this sort of tragedy does not happen to a child of theirs. They can insist that their child is immunised against measles. I was unable to do that for Olivia in 1962 because in those days a reliable measles vaccine had not been discovered. Today a good and safe vaccine is available to every family and all you have to do is to ask your doctor to administer it.

It is not yet generally accepted that measles can be a dangerous illness. Believe me, it is. In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk. In America, where measles immunisation is compulsory, measles like smallpox, has been virtually wiped out.

Here in Britain, because so many parents refuse, either out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear, to allow their children to be immunised, we still have a hundred thousand cases of measles every year. Out of those, more than 10,000 will suffer side effects of one kind or another. At least 10,000 will develop ear or chest infections. About 20 will die.

LET THAT SINK IN.

Every year around 20 children will die in Britain from measles.

So what about the risks that your children will run from being immunised?

They are almost non-existent. Listen to this. In a district of around 300,000 people, there will be only one child every 250 years who will develop serious side effects from measles immunisation! That is about a million to one chance. I should think there would be more chance of your child choking to death on a chocolate bar than of becoming seriously ill from a measles immunisation.

So what on earth are you worrying about? It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised.

The ideal time to have it done is at 13 months, but it is never too late. All school-children who have not yet had a measles immunisation should beg their parents to arrange for them to have one as soon as possible.

Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was 'James and the Giant Peach'. That was when she was still alive. The second was 'The BFG', dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles. You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books. And 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.

Alas, this message hasn't quite fallen into irrelevance. What with anti-vaccination movements having somehow picked up a bit of steam in recent years (and with the number of cases of measles cases now climbing again), it might make sense to send Dahl's leaflet back into print — or, better yet, to keep it circulating far and wide around the internet. Not that others haven't made cogent pro-vaccination arguments of their own, in different media, with different illustrations of the data, and with different levels of profanity. Take, for instance, Penn and Teller's segment below, which, finding the perfect target given its mandate against non-evidence-based beliefs, takes aim at the proposition that vaccinations cause autism:

Note: This post originally appeared on site in 2014. Given that the number of reported cases of the measles has just hit a 25 year record in the US--a situation that modern science has made completely avoidable, should people want to avail themselves of vaccinations--we're bringing the post back.

Related Content:

Read a Never Published, “Subversive” Chapter from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The Recipes of Iconic Authors: Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath, Roald Dahl, the Marquis de Sade & More

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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Comments (5)
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  • Antonio Pacelli says:

    I would not say it was measles, probably communists discover his secret life as a spy. Or probably it’s the fact that WHO still consider 1000iu of vitamin d a more than enough dosage even if Oxford did discover in 2014 they are the equivalent of just 60 seconds of sun..
    So just 99000iu less than an healthy persona standards… British always trust too much in their subtropical climate and the calcium storage in their perfectly straight teeth.
    Great job with science by the way, if vaccine is mistaken for immunity so Nutella can be mistaken for a spread cocoa cream and Freud can be mistaken for a real scientist!
    So sir Clement doesn’t even have to be consider a paedophile no more and can just be remembered as his grandpa:a person that just loved kids, like more than friends, as all good priests and Neuroscientists do every day.
    And grate job using good people for Yours terrorism campaign ABCAM, you really are the Merck little sister after all.

  • Quite Curious says:

    What in the world are you talking about?! You honestly sound like someone who needs the help of a mental health professional. Are you trying to say he was a spy and people killed his daughter? Not sure what you are talking about with vitamin d or calcium.

    Vaccinations help prevent measles. More people are getting measles these days because less people are getting vaccinated. Do you really not understand how that works?

  • Antonio Pacelli says:

    Even if indeed he worked for the MI6, the first it was a joke on the fact that monarchy tends to hate communist, so historical they refused and contrast their help with science. Scientific studies of peptides fractions of san Petersburg university are ahead of western pharmaceutical companies at least of 100 years, for our misconceptions of science and the opportunistic tipe of economy that we have, we are in the dark ages of therapeutic medicine (that’s why Venezuela government burned the USA sanitary help after receiving help from Russians btw). Let’s just say vaccines was born in the 1700 and they really was a life saving innovation….by the time. Sadly with the help of anticholinergic agents people like your therapists (that I hardly recommend to change) spread the 1600’s German medicine ideologies all over Europe and statistically speaking there are more people now that think that anti-muscarinic poison should be sells as medicine then in 1200, by the time it was just considered what it is ,venom.
    For the vitamin d you just loose your aplomb, you just didn’t known what I was talking about and you tried to dissimulate, not clever..
    I’m not against Dahl, actually I love him, i’m just saying that his daughter could have lived, with science, not with autistic people that goes on youtube throwing plastic balls at plastic minions for better explain why vaccines are not at all related to autistic attitude, because they doesn’t create a TH1 type of immuno inflammation that can easily became autoreactive. Of course they don’t, we don’t even know what autoimmunity mean! Ha ha! SCIENCE!
    For real , just study before throwing around this tipe of argument, it’s also for your own sake.
    Peace

  • Victor G. says:

    Modern Science at the service of late-stage Capitalism … what could possibly go wrong?

  • Virginia Elliott says:

    What a poignant plea to rationality. I am struck that this message is still timely.

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