Bungling doctor sent poet 'into that good night'
DYLAN Thomas might have had good cause to rage against the dying of his own light after it emerged a bungling doctor, rather than chronic alcoholism, brought about the poet’s demise.
According to a new biography published tomorrow, the author of Under Milk Wood was found by doctors to be suffering from pneumonia when he was admitted to the New York hospital where he died in November 1953, aged 40.
According to the authors of Dylan Remembered 1935-1953 it was mistreatment of that condition which led to his death.
The discovery goes against half a century of popular held opinion that Thomas died from an alcoholic "insult to the brain" following a binge in which he reportedly claimed he drank "18 straight whiskies; I think it’s a record".
Thomas had complained he could not breathe and was "suffocating", but he was not diagnosed with pneumonia until nearly 24 hours later.
His personal physician, Dr Milton Feltenstein, initially decided he had delirium tremens and ignored the possibility of a chest infection.
Feltenstein injected the poet with three doses of morphine, which the biographers say restricted his breathing. After the third dose, Thomas’s face turned blue and he sank into a coma.
Doctors at St Vincent’s hospital, New York, took three hours to restore his breathing, but his brain had been too starved of oxygen and he remained in deep coma until he died four days later.
Although the report of Thomas’s post mortem examination cited pneumonia as a cause of death, along with brain swelling and a fatty liver, previous studies have assumed that the lung infection developed in hospital as a consequence of the coma.
But writers David Thomas, author of an acclaimed biography of Thomas’s earlier life, and Dr Simon Barton, primary medical care officer for Cornwall, have produced evidence from a summary of medical notes made by the two junior doctors who admitted the writer to St Vincent’s.
The biographers conclude: "The medical notes indicate that, on admission, Dylan’s bronchial disease was found to be very extensive, affecting upper, mid and lower lung fields, both left and right.
"The bronchitis and pneumonia, as well as his emphysema, impaired Dylan’s breathing, and as a consequence his brain was starved of oxygen, leading to swelling of the brain tissues, coma and then death.
"Over the long term, Dylan’s smoking, drinking, poor diet and sleeping problems created a general debilitation in which the bronchitis and pneumonia could take hold. But Dylan’s chest disease went undiagnosed and untreated by Milton Feltenstein, in the days before Dylan was admitted to St Vincent’s."
The biographers add that, if the medical notes had become known earlier, "we would have been spared over 40 years of lurid speculation about alcohol or drugs being the cause of Dylan’s coma and death".
Feltenstein made his diagnosis of alcoholic damage after being told by Thomas’s companion in the hotel of his boast that he had drunk 18 straight whiskies.
David Thomas and Burton claim that, in reality, he had drunk eight whiskies. They suggest that it was this final exaggeration in a lifetime of colourful statements which proved fatal to him.
Feltenstein died in 1974. All those who treated Thomas at St Vincent’s hospital are now dead.
One of Thomas’s best known poems was ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’. Written on the death of his father less than a year before the poet’s own death, it contains the immortal last line: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light".
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