Sixty years ago next month, measles encephalitis caused the death of Roald Dahl’s daughter, Olivia - before there was a vaccine available. This tragedy led him to become an ardent supporter of measles vaccination.

A letter to parents

In 1986, Roald Dahl wrote a letter to parents encouraging them to get their children vaccinated. We would like to share it with you for Encephalitis Information Week: 

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.

“Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

“I feel all sleepy, ” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.

The measles had turned into a terrible thing called measles encephalitis and there was nothing the doctors could do to save her.

Read in full: Roald Dahl's letter to parents

To Olivia

The story of the Dahl family was turned into a Sky Original film starring Hugh Bonneville and Keely Hawes. It was released in February 2021.

Synopsis: It’s 1962 and burgeoning children's author Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal, a glamourous Hollywood movie star, have retreated to the English countryside to bring up their expanding young family. Tragically, their lives are turned upside down by the devastating death of their daughter Olivia from measles encephalitis and as the couple struggle through the unimaginable loss, their shared grief becomes a source of redemption and strength which changes their lives forever.

To Olivia is available to watch on iTunes, Google Play, Sky, Amazon Prime, and other online retailers.

The Encephalitis Podcast

To coincide with the release of To Olivia, Dr Ava Easton and the Encephalitis Podcast interviewed the film’s director John Hay and producer Donall McCusker.

Listen to the podcast episode:


Google Play


Or watch now:

Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Medicine

Professor Tom Solomon, President of the Encephalitis Society, looked after the Roald Dahl towards the end of his life.

In his book, Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Medicine, Professor Solomon examines Dahl’s interest in everything medical. Taking examples from Dahl’s life, and illustrated with excerpts from his writing, the book uses Dahl as a starting point to explore some extraordinary areas of medical science. At the same time the book is peppered with anecdotes from Dahl’s late night hospital discussions with Solomon, which give new insights into this remarkable man’s thinking as his life came to an end.

Order a copy

Tom was interviewed by TRT World about Roald Dahl and his book.