6 Mar 2017

An Unexpected Evening of Popular Science

Kyle Spence is author of the crime novels Murder Incorporated and Murder Syndicated, a lover of all things science, and grew up enraptured with the works of Roald Dahl. Here he writes about his recent visit to watch IGH's Professor Tom Solomon's Marvellous Medicine show at the Northern Ireland Science Festival

When he first took to the stage in the trendy Black Box Theatre, Belfast, what struck me most about Professor Tom Solomon was that he had the quintessential look of a scientist -  tall, lean, bespectacled.

I was soon to learn that Tom is a charming and charismatic man who took some ‘squiffy’ technical issues in his stride to engage and regale the audience, during his event, "An Unexpected Evening with Roald Dahl’s Doctor" part of the Northern Ireland Science Festival. Tom talked with obvious affection about the night on call, 25 years ago, as he was hunched over his computer and the patient who kept slowly walking by for a nosy at the research he was writing up. It was his first encounter in which Tom was to learn that Roald Dahl was much more than the author of books that generations have grown up loving.

Sipping from a glass of wine Tom captured the packed audience with the remarkable early years of Dahl’s life, you may recognise some of the tales from ‘Boy’ and ‘Going Solo’ for as we were to discover the events of his life greatly influenced his writing, and in a way this helped the author to deal with them. The hard times of his life were also the inspiration behind Tom’s new popular science book, Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Medicine; from the accident in New York that made him the driving force behind a neurosurgeon and a toymaker to develop a new valve for the treatment of hydrocephalus for his son, Theo; to the tragic passing of his daughter Olivia at only 7 years old from measles encephalitis that spurred him to become a major advocate for measles immunisation at home and abroad, contributing to thousands of lives saved.

And when Dahl’s first wife Patricia Neal suffered a stroke the author and his family, friends and neighbours worked tirelessly in an effort to rehabilitate her, that started a medical revolution in stroke therapy and became a keystone in the Stroke Association. The codes of speech Dahl had recorded from Patricia to better understand what she was trying to say formed the basis of the idiosyncratic speech of that much beloved character, the BFG.

Tom spoke of these things with a mixture of wit, compassion, and at times I dare say reverence, though there was also a bit more risqué humour from Dahl’s short stories served with a cute little cocktail called the William and Mary, I won’t spoil the surprise.

Before I finish I must mention the  book written by Tom ‘RoaldDahl’s Marvellous Medicine’ gives greater insight than could be covered in our intimate evening’s chat. Most importantly as with Dahl’s oft noted altruism, all royalties of Tom’s book will go to charities that work in areas of interest to Dahl.

So how do I close about a fantastic, entertaining, educational, poignant, sometimes tragic but deeply wonderful evening of anecdotes about an author whose legacy lives on like a whiffsy time-twiddler?
When asked by a member of the audience how he felt about Roald Dahl, Tom Solomon replied simply, “I loved him.”

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