The Time Roald Dahl Helped Invent A Cerebral Shunt

The Fantastic Mr. Fox, James and the Giant Peach... and Roald And The Improved Tube To Drain Brain Fluid.

It seems pretty likely that we'll induct Roald Dahl into the Badass Hall of Fame one of these days. The guy wasn't just an incredible, prolific writer of beloved books like The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he also did early drafts on a couple of James Bond movies and wrote adult fiction; one of his stories was adapted by Quentin Tarantino in Four Rooms. He fought in WWII, where he was a flying ace (five kills) in the RAF. He also said some rough stuff about Jews, but the less of that the better.

Dahl and his family had some bad brain luck. He crashed his plane in the war and received a head injury that temporarily blinded him. His daughter Olivia died at age 7 from measles encephelitis. His wife Patricia Neal suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms while pregnant in 1965, and spent some time in a coma. And his son, Theo, suffered brain damage at four months in a car accident.

Theo's baby carriage was hit by a taxicab in New York City in 1960. The baby survived but was grievously injured; young Theo suffered from hydrocephalus, aka water on the brain, a terrible and painful buildup of spinocerebral fluid in the skull. Theo had a shunt installed, which drained the fluid from his brain to another part of his body. Theo went home to England, where he was cared for by neurosurgeon Kenneth Till. Unfortunately Theo's shunt was a bit of a mess, getting clogged with debris, causing him agonizing pain and blindness and calling for emergency surgery.

Dahl, seeing his son suffer, decided he needed to do something. So he became the go-between for Till and an engineer named Stanley Wade. Dahl knew Wade because they shared a model airplane hobby. Together the three men came up with a new shunt system that utilized two metal discs as regulators. The new shunt, called the Wade-Dahl-Till valve, boasted “low resistance, ease of sterilisation, no reflux, robust construction, and negligible risk of blockage.”

By the time the new shunt was perfected Theo had healed up enough that he didn't need it, but thousands more people benefited from the work. Eventually science moved past the Wade-Dahl-Till valve, but for a while it made a huge difference in people's lives. The three men agreed to see no profit from their invention.