Dickens knew his disorders

December 10, 1999

Charles Dickens was not only a brilliant social observer but was also well ahead of his time in his observations of neurological disorders.

A study of the Victorian author's works has revealed remarkable attention to detail in outlining the precise symptoms and effects of mental conditions in his characters - many previously undescribed in medical literature - according to John Cosnett, a retired neurologist from Kesh, Northern Ireland.

In the latest issue of the journal Addiction, Dr Cosnett notes Dickens's unerring accuracy with a host of disorders associated with alcoholism.

"Dickens described many neurological syndromes, including the consequences of alcoholic addiction, with remarkable accuracy and insight for a layman, a century or more before their formal description in medical literature," said Dr Cosnett.

Among the sufferers of alcohol-related disorders picked out by Dr Cosnett were Sydney Carton, a binge-drinker in A Tale of Two Cities, and Wickfield, the father of David Copperfield's second wife, who was suffering from alcohol-induced progressive deterioration.

The pitiful condition of Cleaver in Our Mutual Friend is most probably the result of alcoholic degeneration of the cerebellum while his daughter, Jenny Wren, described as "a dwarf ... a queer little figure" who complained of "bad back and queer legs" seems to have suffered stunted growth and facial peculiarities as a result of foetal alcohol syndrome.

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