Roald Dahl, Who Lost His Daughter to Measles, Writes a Heartbreaking Letter about Vaccinations: “It Really 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.


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:

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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