"The Landlady" and Other Short Stories

"The Landlady" and Other Short Stories Roald Dahl's Inventiveness: The Wade-Dahl-Till Valve

Though Roald Dahl is mostly known for his writing, he is also one of the inventors of the shunt valve and the modern ventricular catheter.

In 1960, Roald Dahl's four-month-old son Theo was hit by a New York City taxi, resulting in a traumatic brain injury with cerebral damage and multiple skull fractures. Theo survived, but developed secondary hydrocephalus, a condition in which excess fluid builds up in the brain, causing immense pressure on the brain. After a ventriculoatrial shunt was implanted to allow the excess fluid to drain, the family moved back to the United Kingdom. But, Theo developed hydrocephalus again after multiple obstructions to the shunt and debris clogging the valve.

Dahl, dedicated to his son's well-being, enlisted the help of Stanley Wade, a toymaker who specialized in making small hydraulic pumps that provided fuel to toy model airplanes. After Theo was moved to the Hospital for Sick Children at Great Ormond Street in London, pediatric neurosurgeon Kenneth Till invited both Dahl and Wade to the operating room to observe how the shunts were used.

The new valve that Wade Dahl and Till designed had a few central components. Since the older valves were experiencing blockages, the team designed a valve that did not come into contact with brain matter during its initial placement. Commercial valves were also expensive and had plastic parts that could not be sterilized. To remedy this, the team created a sterile stainless steel model that costed significantly less than the previous valves. Finally, the valve had a moving steel part that allowed for maximum drainage and prevented blockages.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 children worldwide received this implant within a few years, as Dahl's invention left a significant impact.