Scrooge 'was a victim of brain disease'
John Harlow, Los Angeles
IT WAS the night before Christmas and Ebenezer Scrooge was facing a succession of supernatural terrors; or, as the latest medical thinking would have it, he was succumbing to a brain disease so obscure that doctors would not give it a name for another 150 years.
A pair of medico-literary sleuths claimed last week to have tracked down the illness that haunted Scrooge. They concluded that Charles Dickens brilliantly observed the symptoms in A Christmas Carol.
Robert Chance Algar, a Californian neurologist, and his aunt Lisa Saunders, a medical writer and physician, believe that the affliction that made Scrooge a byword for miserliness and redemption was Lewy body dementia (LBD), a disease so complex that doctors did not include it in the medical lexicon until 1996.
A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, presents readers with a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" who dismisses the festivities as humbug until he is visited by ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. The spirits open his eyes and transform him into a philanthropist.
Scrooge himself appears to blame food poisoning for his experiences, telling Jacob Marley's ghost that he is merely "an undigested bit of beef . . . there is more of gravy than the grave about you". But that is before the ghosts of Christmas enter his cold bedroom.
Algar thought at first that Scrooge was in the grip of depression or a bipolar disorder, yet neither would explain his ghostly visitors. "All the events described in the story fit a person suffering from the early stages of LBD," he said.
LBD is similar to both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. "Dickens says, 'The cold within him froze his old features and stiffened his gait', and he also suffers from tremors. But for me the most telling symptom is the ghosts," said Algar.
"In the early stage of the illness, people undergo vivid hallucinations, often involving old friends or family members. And such experiences can cause a dramatic shift in perspectives."
John Fowler, a Dickens scholar, said: "Behind his grotesque exaggerations, Dickens sharply observed social trends and foibles. But I didn't appreciate how sharp-eyed he was on sickness as well."