For Roald Dahl and his American actress wife, Patricia Neal, 1962 had started rather well.
The celebrated author’s third novel, James And The Giant Peach, had just been published and Kiss Kiss, his fourth collection of short stories, was a huge international success.
Pat had just starred in Breakfast At Tiffany’s alongside Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard.
Roald Dahl with wife Patricia Neal and their children Theo (in the pram), Tessa (next to Patricia) and Olivia (next to Roald) at their home White Fields in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, in 1962
Their son Theo was finally on the mend after a near-fatal car accident and, after a long, cold winter in New York, the couple and their three children — Olivia, seven, Tessa, five, and two-year-old Theo — had returned home to Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire.
With Pat away for weeks on end in Texas, filming Hud (for which she would win an Oscar) with Paul Newman, Roald was blissfully happy just to be back at his beloved Gipsy House, juggling gardening, childcare, the school run, his ongoing revisions to Charlie’s Chocolate Boy (later to become Charlie And The Chocolate Factory) and the beginnings of a new children’s book.
Then one day in November, his life imploded.
Olivia contracted measles encephalitis — a rare inflammation of the brain which can arise from measles — and within a week was dead.
Roald was left ‘limp with despair’ and forever afterwards plagued by the feeling that he had let his ‘favourite child’ down.
Olivia (left) contracted measles encephalitis — a rare inflammation of the brain which can arise from measles — and within a week was dead. Pictured: Roald Dahl with Patricia Neal and their two daughters
It had all started with a note from Olivia’s headmistress that notified all parents of a measles outbreak at her school. Pictured: The family at their home in Buckinghamshire
It had all started with a note from Olivia’s headmistress, notifying all parents of a measles outbreak at her school.
There was no vaccination available at the time — the first was licensed the following year in the U.S. — although in America, gamma globulin in large doses was often used as a prophylactic to boost children’s immunity against the disease.
Worried that toddler Theo might be vulnerable, Pat called her brother-in-law in the States, Ashley Miles, who sent over just enough gamma globulin for their son, with the words that would haunt Dahl for ever.
‘Let the girls get measles,’ he said. ‘It will be good for them.’
Within days, Olivia had a mild fever and was covered in spots. So along with Rowley, her beloved dog, she was quarantined from her siblings.
There seemed nothing sinister in her illness and by day four she was perking up. Her temperature had fallen, she thrashed Roald at chess, ate a good lunch, fell asleep at 5pm and slept for more than 16 hours.
But when she awoke late the next morning, Olivia seemed different. Her head ached. She didn’t want to play, her fingers were clumsy and she just wanted to sleep.
There was no vaccination available at the time with the first being licensed the following year in the U.S. Pictured: Roald Dahl smoking a pipe as he tends to a grave thought to belong to Olivia
The family GP, Mervyn Brigstock, was called. But except for extreme lethargy he could find nothing wrong, so he told them to let her sleep it off and Roald returned to his writing hut in the garden.
At four that afternoon, Roald’s sister Else popped by to see Olivia, her niece and goddaughter, and found her sleeping.
But when Pat checked on her an hour later, she found Olivia having convulsions in bed and staring blankly at her mother with ‘dead-looking eyes’ before falling still, ‘her mouth gaping limply, oozing spit’.
Hysterically, Pat again and again hit the intercom switch that connected Roald’s writing hut to the house until he came running. Dr Brigstock was called and, as they waited, they cooled Olivia’s hot little brow with damp flannels.
But it was too late. She was unresponsive, her breathing shallow and rasping, and as soon as he saw her, Brigstock called an ambulance.
Roald was left ‘limp with despair’ and forever afterwards plagued by the feeling that he had let his ‘favourite child’ down after she died following a measles outbreak at school
When it arrived, Roald scooped up his near-lifeless daughter, swaddled her in an eiderdown, tenderly handed her over and then, full of dread, followed in his car as they raced to Stoke Mandeville Hospital, sirens screaming.
Some time later, in a green school exercise book with the single word ‘Olivia’ written on the cover, he wrote this searing, meticulously detailed account of his daughter’s final moments.
‘Awful drive. Lorries kept holding us up on narrow roads. Got to hospital. Ambulance went to wrong entrance. Backed out. Arrived. Young doctor in charge. Mervyn and he gave her 3mg sodium amatol. I sat in hall. Smoked. Felt frozen. A small single-bar electric fire on wall. An old man in next room.
‘Woman doctor went to phone. She was trying urgently to locate another doctor. He arrived. I went in. Olivia lying quietly. Still unconscious. She has an even chance, doctor said. They had tapped her spine. Not meningitis. It’s encephalitis.
‘Mervyn left in my car. I stayed. Pat arrived and went in to see Olivia. Kissed her. Spoke to her. Still unconscious. I went in. I said, ‘Olivia . . . Olivia.’ She raised her head slightly off pillow. Sister said don’t. I went out. We drank whiskey. I told doctor to consult experts. Call anyone.
‘He called a man in Oxford. I listened. Instructions were given. Not much could be done. I first said I would stay on. Then I said I’d go back with Pat. Went. Arrived home. Called [paediatrician] Philip Evans. He called hospital. Called me back. “Shall I come?” “Yes please.2 I said I’d tell hospital he was coming. I called. Doc thought I was Evans. He said I’m afraid she’s worse. I got in the car. Got to hospital. Walked in. Two doctors advanced on me from waiting room. How is she? I’m afraid it’s too late.
‘I went into her room. Sheet was over her. Doctor said to nurse, go out. Leave him alone. I kissed her. She was warm. I went out. “She is warm,” I said to doctors in hall. “Why is she so warm?” “Of course,” he said. I left.”*
The author wrote a dedication to Olivia in his book The BFG that was first published in 1982
The dedication read: ‘For Olivia. 20 April 1955-17 November 1962’
It is a stark, desperate account, and so detailed it must have been fresh in his mind when he wrote it.
Lord knows why he recorded it all. Perhaps it was his way of processing her death, or preserving the pain. Maybe, as a writer, he felt compelled to put pen to paper.
Whatever the truth, he showed no one and stowed the book at the back of a little-used drawer in his writing hut, where it was found by his family after his death 28 years later.
Today, it serves as an unforgettable lesson in how serious measles can be — and a reminder of why vaccination against this potentially deadly disease is so important.
The day after Olivia’s death, the paediatrician Dr Evans visited Dahl and Pat at home to tell them Olivia had died of measles encephalitis, brain inflammation that is a complication of infection by the measles virus.
Her death was just one in a series of Dahl family catastrophes.
Theo’s accident had happened two years earlier, when the family were living in New York City.
Olivia’s death was described as just one in a series of Dahl family catastrophes. Pictured: Actress Patricia Neal rests her head on the knee of her husband, writer Roald Dahl
He was just four months old when his pram was hit by a taxi, hurled into the air and smashed into a parked bus, shattering Theo’s skull and causing fluid on the brain.
Even worse, at the emergency room, the doctors, who mostly assumed he was going to die, could not agree on his treatment.
Again, Roald’s reaction was to record every last detail of the trauma in one of his ‘ideas books’, then throw himself into developing a device to improve the shunt used to drain the fluid.
(Thanks largely to him, what became known as the WDT valve was used successfully on almost 3,000 children worldwide.)
Amazingly, after teetering for months between life and death and undergoing countless operations, Theo recovered.
In 1965, three years after losing Olivia, disaster struck again when Pat suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms while pregnant with their fifth child, Lucy.
Again the outlook looked grim but Dahl took control of her rehabilitation programme to ensure that over the ensuing months she relearnt how to talk and walk — and, miraculously, eventually returned to her acting career. But where he had been able to intervene, to do something, for Theo and Pat during their crises, Olivia’s death left Roald impotent and hopeless.
The only thing he could have done — insist on the gamma globulin that Dr Evans later confirmed could have prevented her contracting the disease — he did not do.
It haunted Roald and cost him his happiness and his faith. He began to see Christianity as a sham, especially after Geoffrey Fisher, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, told him that, although Olivia was now in Paradise, Rowley the dog would never join her there.
But while he had been unable to save his daughter’s monstrously short life, Roald was determined to protect other children.
Ophelia Dahl, Roald’s daughter who was born in 1964, about 18 months after Olivia’s death, told the Mail this week that she ‘grew up in the shadow’ of that terrible event.
‘Olivia’s name, her drawings and paintings were a part of my siblings’ and my life growing up, as was the deep sense of sadness at the family’s loss,’ she said.
‘My father was absolutely distraught and, according to my mother, he went to bed for a month. With time, he found a way to throw himself into his writing and towards support of his other kids.
‘He also felt driven to campaign for the critical importance of vaccination. He felt passionately about being able to use his voice to prevent others going through the devastating loss he and my mother experienced.’
While Dahl rarely spoke publicly of Olivia’s death and never shared that record of her final minutes, he became an ardent proponent of immunisation. In 1986 he wrote a shattering letter encouraging parents to protect their children.
As the Mail campaigns to urge all parents to get their children vaccinated, we have republished it today, with his estate’s permission, in the hope it will spare other parents the terrible burden of grief this great children’s writer endured.
*Diary extract © The Roald Dahl Story Company Ltd.
Measles: A dangerous illness, by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl on Olivia, writing in 1986:
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 coloured 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 12 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 24 years ago, in 1962, but even now, if a child with measles happens to develop the same deadly reaction as Olivia did, there would still be nothing the doctors could do to help them.
On the other hand, there is today something that parents can do to make sure this sort of tragedy does not happen to a child of theirs. They can insist that their child is immunised 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 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 immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk. In America, where measles immunisation is compulsory, measles, like smallpox, has been virtually wiped out.
Here in Britain, because so many parents refuse, out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear, to allow their children to be immunised, we still have 100,000 cases of measles every year.
Out of those, more than 10,000 will suffer side-effects of one kind or another. At least 10,000 will develop ear or chest infections. About 20 will die.
LET THAT SINK IN.
Every year around 20 children will die in Britain from measles.
So what about the risks that your children will run from being immunised? 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 immunisation! 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 becoming seriously ill from a measles immunisation.
So what on earth are you worrying about? It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised.
The ideal time to have it done is at 13 months, but it is never too late. All schoolchildren who have not yet had a measles immunisation should beg their parents to arrange for them to have one as soon as possible.
Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia. The first was James And The Giant Peach — that was when she was still alive.
The second was The BFG, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles. You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books.
And I know how happy she would be if only she could know her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.