Written in response to:
In his thoughtful and largely generous review of Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, Paul Stanhope states of my revelation that syphilis was the cause of Britten’s heart disease, ‘It is a shame that Kildea ran with this theory (which has long been rumoured) without testing the evidence more thoroughly’.
I think it equally a shame that Paul Stanhope has not read the article ‘Body of Evidence’ in the New Statesman (7–13 June 2013) by cardiologist Hywel Davies, my source for the diagnosis of syphilis. Davies dismisses the published denials by the medics loosely involved in Britten’s case – only one of whom, a junior anaesthetist, was in the operating theatre and whose claims in the Guardian that Britten’s heart was in great shape are wholly contradicted by the surgical report, rendering him an unreliable witness. He also lays out the timeline of when Britten’s eminent surgeon, Donald Ross, told him of his diagnosis, when Davies confirmed this with the assistant surgeon, and what the surgical report and Britten’s medical history tell us. I confirmed Davies’s story with two other people intimately connected to Britten’s surgeon and operation.
I am as bemused as Mr Ross’s wife that Britten’s junior cardiologist is vehemently denying in print the possibility of this diagnosis, something he could not do when we spoke while I was researching my book, but I suppose it is explicable that the medical profession would circle the wagons, something I think Mr Stanhope should acknowledge before dismissing the claims in my book.
When Paul Kildea’s biography was launched, the sensational claims that the composer’s heart condition was actually caused by the tertiary stages of syphilis caused quite a stir. These claims were rounded upon by many sections media and by the members of the medical community who were present at Britten’s heart operation where the syphilis was allegedly uncovered. It appeared that Mr Kildea had based much of his version of events on a second-hand report of conversations later in life with the surgeon, Donald Ross, rather than on the existing primary sources, such as the junior anaesthetist.
At the time of writing my review, I had not read the article in the New Statesman that Mr Kildea mentions in his letter. This article by Hywell Davies provides further medical details about Britten’s heart operation. This article presents syphilis as a possible cause for Britten’s heart disease, suggesting that the medical evidence does not rule it out. But it is not a full-blooded defence of Kildea’s position either, mentioning that there is a need for some rewording of certain passages in a future new edition.
Even if Mr Kildea is ultimately proved right about the syphilis theory (and I do not dismiss it out of hand), I think it is a shame that so much attention and controversy has been whipped up over a relatively unimportant part of a biography which is full of astute scholarship, great historical detail and superb musical analysis.