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.


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.

  • 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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