Rebecca's Reviews > A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy

A Smell of Burning by Colin Grant
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bookshelves: memoirs, newbury-library, illness-and-death, history, skimmed

I read the first 30-some pages and skimmed the rest. The author’s youngest brother, Christopher, had epilepsy and died at age 39 of a heart attack associated with a grand mal seizure in 2008. Grant traces the history of the disease and its treatment from ancient Greece onwards. It’s amazing to see all the famous figures who suffered with epilepsy; due to the stigma that has been attached to it for centuries, many of them kept it secret or spoke of it only in metaphors: Harriet Tubman, Emily Dickinson, Edward Lear, Vincent Van Gogh, Fyodor Dostoevsky (and his character Prince Myshkin in The Idiot), George Gershwin, Ian Curtis of Joy Division (who committed suicide), and Tony Greig, an England cricket captain. It’s also speculated that the Apostle Paul and Joan of Arc may have been epileptic, such that their visions were the result of illness rather than divine revelation.

Through history epilepsy has often been linked with demon possession, and up until 1970 the UK’s Matrimonial Causes Act made it legal for a marriage to be dissolved if one partner was subject to epileptic fits. How far we’ve come, but there’s still a long way to go for epilepsy to be given the same public and research attention as other conditions like cancer.
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Reading Progress

April 19, 2017 – Shelved
April 19, 2017 – Shelved as: memoirs
April 19, 2017 – Shelved as: newbury-library
April 19, 2017 – Shelved as: illness-and-death
April 19, 2017 – Shelved as: history
May 2, 2017 – Shelved as: skimmed

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie G My sister-in-law has epilepsy, and there is still a stigma today! Thanks to her AEDs, she can live a mostly normal life.

They say James Madison had epilepsy, too. Brilliant mind, when it wasn't besieged by his illness.


Rebecca That's very interesting. The religious historian Karen Armstrong has epilepsy. I think her memoirs are the only personal account I'd previously read of the illness.


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