Writer Roald Dahl’s oldest child, daughter Olivia, contracted measles when she was seven years old. His disease resulted in a rare but serious complication: measles encephalitis, inflammation of the brain. Olivia died on November 17, 1962, just days after becoming ill. Dahl was devastated by the loss of his daughter, but he also used Olivia’s death to encourage other children to vaccinate.
After a terrible accident, Dahl and his family move to England
On December 5, 1960, tragedy struck the young family when Theo’s baby car collided with a taxi in New York City. Sent flying in the air, the four-month-old skull broke when it landed.
Theo’s prognosis was initially severe. However, he recovered from the accident, although he would require multiple surgeries to relieve the buildup of fluid around his brain. In 1961, Theo’s situation stabilized, Dahl and Neil decided to leave New York and make their home in the English village of Great Missenden.
Dahl was able to write in a cottage on the property (he was working on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). He also devised ways to entertain the children, such as when he shot his daughters’ names on the lawn with a videkiller, saying that it was done by the fairies. He shared a particularly close relationship with Olivia, who enjoyed stories like his father.
Olivia Dahl became very ill with measles in 1962
In November 1962, Dahles learns that a seven-year-old Olivia school had a measles outbreak. There was no measles vaccine available at that time, so there was a possibility of them catching the easily spread virus. However, there was an available treatment: gamma globulin, a blood plasma protein, whose antibodies may prevent or reduce the severity of infection.
In the US, gamma globulin was given regularly to children, but in the United Kingdom, it was usually given only to pregnant women. Dahl’s brother-in-law, Ashley Miles, was a prominent American doctor, so Neil reached out to him to try to get gamma globulin for the children. However, Miles only provided enough for Theo, who was still recovering from his accident, saying, “Let the girls have measles, it will be good for them.”
Olivia soon developed the famous measles rash. After three days she was well enough to learn chess from Dahl, and also beat her father in the game. But on the fourth day of her illness, she was lethargic. When Dahl tried to entertain her, she noticed that her fingers and her brain were not working together and she could not do anything. Later that day, Olivia began to have cramps.
Olivia’s death devastates Dahl
Olivia was rushed to the hospital, where she was found to develop measles encephalitis, inflammation of the brain. Treatment could not save the comatose girl who died on November 17, 1962. Years later, after Dahl’s own death, his family discovered a notebook in which he described seeing his daughter’s body in the hospital:
“I went to her room. The sheet was over her. The doctor nurse Said to go out. Leave him alone. I kissed him. He was hot. I walked out. ‘He’s hot.’ I told the doctors in the hall, ‘Why is she so hot?’
In life, Dahl’s priority was always to find a way to cope with adversity. After his son’s accident, Dahl helped build a valve to treat Theo’s hydrocephalus (the valve was recovered before it was ready but thousands of other patients benefited from it). But now he had nothing. Soon after losing Olivia, Dahl told a friend, “I wish we didn’t have a chance to fight for him.”
Neil later told People magazine that after losing his daughter, “Ronald was actually almost mad.” Knowledge of gamma globulin could have prevented encephalitis that led to the death of his daughter. Seeing Theo’s accident, he wondered if his family had been cursed. Religion offered no solace, as a church leader told him that there would be no dogs in the afterlife, who knew that Olivia would be hated.