On Christmas Eve 1947, George Orwell was admitted to a Scottish hospital with a case of galloping consumption. Orwell had first been diagnosed with tuberculosis almost 10 years earlier, but nonetheless, in what a biographer called “one of the many ill-judged decisions in a life littered with misjudgements,” he had recently moved to a remote and primitive Scottish cottage, where he began work on Nineteen Eighty-Four. There, he developed the night sweats, fever, and weight loss that are hallmarks of active TB. By the time he was admitted to the hospital, Mycobacterium tuberculosis had husked nearly 30 pounds off his already slender frame.
When I was younger and more romantic, I imagined that tuberculosis made you a good writer. After all, so many great ones, from Keats to Chekhov to all three Brontës, seemed to have died of it. Indeed, in 19th-century Europe, the “White Plague” may have caused as many as a quarter of all deaths. Though that proportion had fallen by Orwell’s time, writers from Camus to Bukowski were still contracting tuberculosis, as were millions of their less famous countrymen. Only antibiotics finally conquered the disease.
Victory arrived just barely too late for Orwell. His friends actually managed to obtain a supply of streptomycin, the brand-new anti-TB drug, from America, but it caused such a violent reaction that every morning when he woke, blood from the ulcers in his mouth had glued his lips shut. It had to be soaked off before he could speak. After several weeks, his doctors had to give up. A less powerful new drug called PAS, which he tried in 1949, didn’t make him so sick, but apparently didn’t much bother the tuberculosis bacilli, either. In January of 1950, an artery burst in his lungs, and at the age of 46, George Orwell drowned in his own blood.