Monday, October 20, 2008

Charlie and the Brain Shunt Factory

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", and many other delightful children's books, were written by a fighter pilot who helped develop a brain shunt.

This is a true story of loving parents creating good from tragedy. As I wrote in wikipedia:
The Wade-Dahl-Till (WDT) valve is a cerebral shunt developed in 1962 by hydraulic engineer Stanley Wade, author Roald Dahl and neurosurgeon Kenneth Till.

In 1960, Dahl's son Theo developed hydrocephalus after being struck by a car. A standard Holter shunt was installed to drain excess fluid from his brain; however the shunt jammed too often, causing pain and blindness, risking brain damage and requiring emergency surgery. Till determined that debris accumulated in the hydrocephalic ventricles could clog the slits in the Holter valves, especially with patients, such as Theo, who had had bleeding in the brain.

Dahl knew Wade to be an expert in precision hydraulic engineering, from their shared hobby of flying model aircraft (in addition to building his own model aircraft engines, Wade ran a factory at High Wycombe for producing precision hydraulic pumps.)[1] With Dahl coordinating the efforts of the neurosurgeon and the hydraulic engineer, the team developed a new mechanism using two metal discs, each in a restrictive housing at the end of a short silicon rubber tube. Fluid moving under pressure from below pushed the discs against the tube to prevent retrograde flow; pressure from above moved each disc to the "open" position. As Till reported in The Lancet, the invention was characterized by “low resistance, ease of sterilisation, no reflux, robust construction, and negligible risk of blockage”. See Tales of the Unexpected: Roald Dahl’s Neurological Contributions".

By the time the device was perfected, Theo had healed to the point at which it was not necessary for him; however several thousand of other children benefited from the WDT valve before medicine technology progressed beyond it.

The full story of Dahl's life is vastly more complex and interesting than any fiction. To get started, I recommend "Boy" (suitable for children) and "Flying Solo" (for teens). His later life showed no signs of letting up, including a tumultuous marriage to Oscar-winning actress Patrician Neal. Let us not forget Roald Dahl Day, which is all about encouraging reading!

Learn more about this fascinating character, who surmounted many tragedies with eccentric determination, at

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