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Remember Tiny Tim? His Diagnosis May Be Found



Even though it is far from Christmas time, this is an article I read from Huffington Post Science about “A Christmas Carol” that I found interesting to share with you guys. Remember Tiny Tim, from Charles Dickens’ novella? Now, a medical doctor thinks he has the answer to his illness, although Dickens never explains why Tiny Tim wears leg braces and uses a crutch. According to Russell Chesney, a physician at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, Tiny Tim suffered from a combination of rickets and tuberculosis.

Chesney made his diagnosis based on Tim’s deformities described in the text, along with the story’s insinuation that the boy’s disease would be curable if his father had more money. Rickets is a bone disorder caused by a Vitamin D deficiency or calcium deficiency. Lack of these nutrients softens the bones, and leg braces would have been the solution back in the 1840s, at the time of the novella, Chesney says. Since vitamin D-fortified milk and infant formula was introduced decades ago, this disorder is rarely seen in the United States now. Tuberculosis was also called the “white plague” during Dickens’ time, and was known to run rampant in this era. Tiny Tim’s life in cramped, polluted London would have set him up for both rickets and tuberculosis, Chesney said. At the time, 60 percent of children of working-class London families had rickets, brought on by poor nutrition and lack of sunlight. London’s very polluted skies (oftentimes from the coal of such an industrial city) often blocked out much of the sunlight.

I think this article is extremely interesting, because I don’t know how accurate a diagnosis can be for a fictional character. While Chesney’s diagnosis makes plenty of sense and seems to be medically backed up, who knows if Dickens wrote Tiny Tim with any kind of actual disease? Perhaps he wrote him in this way to set up his story, without a real disease in mind. Thinking this, it would almost be kind of pointless to try and diagnose a fictional character, when we have no way of knowing any of the circumstances or actual symptoms. Despite all of this, I find it extremely interesting to give a diagnosis to a fictional character, and the next time that I read “A Christmas Carol,” I’ll have in mind Tiny Tim’s illness and possible diagnosis. To me, it makes his character come alive more, and I can now sympathize better with the plight of this young boy.

  1. March 9, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    Although I have never read “A Christmas Carol” I have seen the movie, and I have often wondered why Tiny Tim was cursed with leg braces. After watching the movie as a young child, I assumed Tiny Tim was just one of the many boys in the area suffering from a leg crippling disease due to his families lack of money and/or pure bad luck. However, after reading this post, I find it very interesting that a modern doctor living in Tennessee was able to diagnose the famous Tiny Tim through the descriptions provided by Charles Dickens. Back then, Tiny Tim’s illness was a mystery, and people assumed that he could be cured if only he had more cash. Nowadays, knowledge and scientific research have concluded that the diseases of rickets and tuberculosis can be cured and prevented through the administration of Vitamin D and Calcium supplements. Maybe Charles Dickens had an inkling that Tim could be cured with sunlight exposure, and that’s why he chose to base his story in the slums of London, or maybe Tiny Tim’s illness was a common sight to Dickens and he was writing about what he knew, or what he suffered from. This post makes me curious about Dickens and prompts the question of whether or not he suffered from Tiny Tim’s illness, or knew someone special to him that did. I believe Dickens must have been incredibly familiar with the disease or how else would a modern day medical doctor be able to diagnose Tim’s symptoms? I also find it incredible that through vitamin supplements and sun exposure, a disease as crippling and horrific as Tiny Tim’s could be managed and eventually cured. Maybe this doctor will read through other classics and diagnose each character victimized by an “unknown” disease? I admit, mostly depending on the character and novel, that I would be very curious to know.

  2. March 18, 2012 at 7:01 pm

    Vitamin D is vital to everyday existence, as I an learning in my Alternative Medicine class this semester. Back then, London was an industrial society filled with factories and gloom and pollution. The sun was not nearly as persistent as it is now in areas. Coming from the sun itself, Vitamin D deficiency was a common plight experienced by many of London’s citizens. This diagnosis for Tiny Tim is very realistic and probably extremely well known at the time.

    Thankfully, there now exist supplements to counter act deficiency such as this. Whereas years ago people had to suffer through this illness and disease, we are now lucky enough to have medical advances which counter-act such things.

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