I’d no idea who George Orwell was, says doctor who treated him

Professor James Williamson, who treated Orwell. Picture: Dan Phillips
Professor James Williamson, who treated Orwell. Picture: Dan Phillips
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HE was one of Britain’s leading political writers, famous for novels including Animal Farm and Burmese Days.

But to a young Scottish junior doctor unaware of his identity, the quiet middle-aged man was just another patient.

Novelist George Orwell went to Jura to improve his health. Picture: PA

Novelist George Orwell went to Jura to improve his health. Picture: PA

Within weeks, Dr James “Jimmy” Williamson found himself at the forefront of medical treatment in Scotland helping administer a revolutionary new “miracle drug” to George Orwell.

The author used his political and literary connections and royalties from Animal Farm to obtain the drug from the US.

In 1948, Orwell, then 44, became the first person in Scotland to be treated with streptomycin, which was unlicensed in Britain and too expensive for the post-war government to ship in.

The writer, who had been living in a remote farmhouse on the island of Jura to help try to improve his health, was admitted to Hairmyres Hospital, near Glasgow, under his real name Eric Blair, for treatment for infectious chronic tuberculosis.

Professor Williamson, 91, from Edinburgh, recalled the novelist sitting in bed working on Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell jumbled the numbers of the year 1948 to produce one of the most famous titles of the 20th century, introducing words such as “Big Brother” and “doublespeak” to international audiences.

“He’d been in the hospital for about two weeks for investigation of his tuberculosis before I arrived. I’d never heard of him. Then one of the nurses told me he was a well-known writer.

“I remember he was in a double room and he would be sitting up in bed with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth typing away most of the time. He smoked almost all the time, was sort of addicted to tobacco and rolled his own cigarettes. Lots of people in hospitals smoked in those days, even the doctors.

“The noise from the typing didn’t seem to cause any bother with the other patient and they got on very well together.”

Professor Williamson remembers Orwell bravely undergoing painful treatment.

“We would chat about his condition and he would do what you wanted him to do. But he was highly strung and we had to give him treatment which involved air being injected into his abdominal cavity. This upset him a lot but he didn’t complain.”

However, more drastic remedies were required and in February 1948 Orwell wrote to his publisher David Astor saying his specialist had told him “it would speed recovery if one had some streptomycin. He suggested that you, with your American connections, might arrange to buy it and I could pay you.”

Astor contacted Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan, who had been Orwell’s editor at the Tribune, checking this would not cause a political row.

But after a few weeks Orwell developed a severe allergic reaction to the drug and treatment stopped. Orwell donated the remaining supply to the hospital.

Orwell’s health deteriorate further and he died in January 1950 – six months after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Iain Macintyre, a former vice-president of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh and co-author of Scottish Medicine – An Illustrated History, which includes details of Orwell’s stay at the hospital, said: “There is an irony that Orwell, who wrote Animal Farm, was in a position to be able to take medical advice to go to Jura and then to obtain streptomycin.

“But when it’s your life on the line you try everything you can to save it.”