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Ailing allegories and sickly stories: the quest for pathology in children’s literature

Brown J McCallum and Stuart M Smith
Med J Aust 2005; 183 (11): 670-671.
Published online: 5 December 2005

The presumption that fictional characters may have real diseases is nothing new. The description of mental illness is a constant feature in literary criticism, and with increasing frequency, descriptions of physical afflictions suffered by literary characters have been showing up in the medical literature. Various characters have even lent their names to medical syndromes — who doesn’t know that Pickwickian Syndrome derives its name from a character in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers or that the Lilliputian Syndrome derives its name from the land of little people in Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels?1 However, characters in children’s literature have been less well examined for physical maladies. Save for a recent article on head trauma in nursery rhymes,2 this area seems largely unexplored. We propose that children’s literature provides a wealth of descriptions of disease states; one only has to look. Consider the following as examples.

  • Brown J McCallum1
  • Stuart M Smith2

  • Primary Care and Subspecialty Medicine, WJB Dorn VA Medical Center, Columbia, SC, USA.

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