clock menu more-arrow no yes

Roald Dahl's saddest story: how vaccines could have saved his daughter's life

Roald Dahl, his wife, and two of his children about a year after Olivia's death.
Roald Dahl, his wife, and two of his children about a year after Olivia's death.
Hulton Archive via Getty Images

British author Roald Dahl is best known for his beloved, weird classic children's books — Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach among them. But one of the most powerful and frightening things he ever wrote was for a public health pamphlet on vaccination, where he described the death of his eldest daughter due to complications from measles.

Dahl writes about how his daughter seemed to be recovering well from what was then a common childhood illness, and suddenly took a turn for the worse. "In an hour, she was unconscious," Dahl writes. "In 12 hours she was dead… there was nothing the doctors could do to save her." (Despite medical advances since 1962, encephalitis is still an incredibly dangerous complication that can cause brain damage or even death.)

Dahl ends the story with a call for others to vaccinate their children that still resonates 52 years after his daughter's death. "It is not yet generally accepted that measles can be a dangerous illness," he writes. "Believe me, it is. In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunized are putting the lives of those children at risk."

Here is the full story, from the Vaccine Knowledge Project at Oxford University:

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 colored 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 immunized 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 immunized are putting the lives of those children at risk…

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

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 immunization! 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 immunization.

Dahl dedicated two of his books to Olivia — James and the Giant Peach, written while she was still alive, and The BFG, written after she died. "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," he wrote.

(h/t Daily Kos)

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.