Meningitis, a whirlpool of death: literary reflections and Russian cultural beliefs

Prog Brain Res. 2013:206:35-58. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-63364-4.00019-3.


Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that cover the central nervous system. The most frequent causes of the disease are viruses and bacteria. In the past, the disease was commonly referred to as "brain fever" or "brain inflammation," and extreme temperatures, sun, rain, mental distress, and other factors were believed to be its potent triggers. By the beginning of the twentieth century, these beliefs faded away in the United States and most western European countries. In contrast, some of these archaic notions persist in Russia, where cold air, draft, wet hair, and failure to cover one's head with a hat during winter are perceived as serious risks for contracting meningitis. These sentiments are reflected in the prose of Solzhenitsyn and other contemporary Russian authors. However, in the fictional literature of the nineteenth century, emotional or intellectual disturbances rather than the wrath of winter were portrayed worldwide as the most frequent cause of brain inflammation. Both physicians and laity blamed nervous breakdown or mental distress for the development of meningitis and the tragic deaths of the eminent Russian writer Gogol, talented poet Nadson, and heir to the Imperial throne Grand Duke Nicholas Romanov. Even in the twentieth century, esteemed Russian artists, including Pasternak, Paustovsky, and Roerich, highlighted this belief. Following the discovery of the infectious nature of meningitis, fictional depictions of the illness changed. While literary accounts of brain inflammation by the realists (e.g., Dostoevsky and Flaubert) were rather imprecise, the descriptions of the course and symptoms of meningitis by the modernists (e.g., Balmont, Hesse, and Huxley) became detailed and recognizable. Typically, the victim of the disease is a boy, and his imminent agony is preceded by immense suffering that devastates his parents. The dreadful experience of seeing children in the merciless clutches of meningitis had a profound personal effect on Maugham, Twain, and Russian philosopher Tikhomirov, changing their spiritual convictions. However, several authors, among them Avseenko, Davydov, Gazdanov, and Shmelyov, created uplifting stories of survival of the affliction. In this chapter, references to meningitis in the medical and fictional literature are explored through a cultural and historical prism, which may help readers to understand how and why this disease has held a special significance in the Russian psyche.

Keywords: Russia; cold temperature; cultural beliefs; literary depictions of disease; meningitis; mental distress.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Culture
  • Famous Persons
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Literature, Modern / history*
  • Medicine in Literature*
  • Meningitis / history*
  • Russia