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April 7, 2010

Grasping at Straws: Eugene O’Neill, Tuberculosis, and Transformation

JAMA. 2010;303(13):1316-1317. doi:10.1001/jama.2010.400

Long before he sat down to compose the dramas that have enlightened and haunted audiences by the millions, Eugene O’Neill contracted tuberculosis. Like most serious illnesses, it forever changed him. In O’Neill's case, the infection was a transformation that enabled him to divine his genius and artistic soul.

Sometime in the fall of 1912, the 24-year-old O’Neill developed a “bad cold” accompanied by tonsillitis that refused to resolve. In the following weeks, he experienced bouts of hemoptysis and pleurisy. By Thanksgiving his physician diagnosed tuberculosis, which in the decades leading up to World War II was the leading cause of death for Americans aged 20 to 45 years.1 Unlike the lyric and romantic plights portrayed in Verdi's La Traviata or Puccini's La Boheme, not to mention a slew of Victorian novels, O’Neill understood all too clearly that the bacilli brewing in his lungs posed a serious threat to his longevity.2