Science and Spain

Photographs of Dr Gleb Zilberstein’s team at work as they try to identify the source of George Orwell’s tuberculosis by examining a letter written in 1937 soon after George Orwell’s return from Spain



At the end of July 2018 newspapers reported a scientific discovery made by Dr Gleb Zilberstein and his team: a letter written by George Orwell showed traces of tuberculosis which could be tracked to Orwell’s time in Spain (December/January to June 1937). Orwell had suffered injuries twice while in Spain: once when his hand was infected so badly that he could do nothing but sit and read while it healed, and secondly when he was shot in the throat and then received treatment at casualty stations near the Huesca front and later at the Sanatorium Maurin near Barcelona.

The Guardian reported, “Zilberstein used acetate film to extract traces of bacteria and morphine from the letter. He and his team checked the bacteria’s characteristics against medical registration records in the archives for those who fought against Spanish fascism.” Dr Zilberstein decided that “the similarities suggest Orwell could have caught tuberculosis while in a Spanish hospital”. More detail appeared in The Smithsonian Magazine.

Dr Zilberstein’s team have used this approach before: to investigate the last years of Mikhail Bulgakov; the death of Anton Chekhov; and – moving beyond literature – in an investigation of seventeenth century plague deaths.

Sergey Dinamov, editor of International Literature (particularly its English language edition), a magazine produced irregularly in Moscow, had written to Orwell – Orwell mentions his recently published Road To Wigan Pier – and Orwell was replying.

The Orwell Society is pleased to be able to display photographs of Dr Zilberstein‘s team at work on the letter.



  1. George Orwell’s letter. The only one he is known to have sent to the USSR


2. Orwell’s letter in close-up



3. Another view


4. Ms.Yana Saravayskaya applying the acetate film


5. At work with the acetate film


6. Working on the edges of the document


7. The letter and the working materials


8. Ms.Yana Saravayskaya, a member of Dr Zilberstein’s team, displays George Orwell’s letter eight decades after he wrote it.


9. The archive record sheet from 1937

Translation by Masha Karp of the Orwell Society:

Editorial Board of the “Internationalnaya Literature” magazine

George Orwell’s [in brackets: Orwell – written in English] letter to Sergey Sergeevich Dinamov.

In English.

Attached: copies of the letter of the editorial board of the mag. “Internationalnaya Literatura” to the NKVD Foreign Department about G. Orwell’s involvement with the Trotskyist organization POUM and the letter of the editorial board to Orwell about stopping any relations with him.

The dates of start and finish 2-28th July 1937

Number of pages: 5

STAMP: the USSR Central State Archive of Arts and Literature.




10. Mrs.Svetlana Zilberstein, who co-ordinated work with the State Archive, holds the archive file.


All photographs supplied by Dr Gleb Zilberstein.

The letter was obtained from the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (Moscow).

Dr Zilbertstein thanks the General Director of the Archive Professor Goryaeva Tatyana and Vice General Manager Dr. Zlobina Galina.

Our thanks to Dr Zilberstein and his team


Historical note: Sergey Dinamov was purged in 1938 and executed in either that year or the next, 1939. It is not clear which.

Bibliographical note: Orwell’s Cough, by Dr John Ross (Oneworld Publications), expands on the details in the various biographies and relates them to Orwell’s lung problems and, later, Orwell’s development of tuberculosis. In the USA the book is published as Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough.

Dr Zilberstein’s discoveries may make researchers return to the test results taken in March 1938 by Dr J B McDougall at Preston Hall Sanitorium in Kent. One note said “TB confirmed” but Dr Ross believes this to be an error as Orwell’s later discharge papers specify that Tuberculosis was excluded. (Ross, page 209).

Orwell Society Journal Editor, Masha Karp, notes that other letters written the same summer exist:– to Leonard Moore (8th July, 17th July, 31st July), to John Lehman (8th July), and Rayner Heppenstall (31st July). Analysis of those documents would confirm or negate the infection found on the Dinamov letter, if the archives holding them would give access to this non-destructive testing.

Thanks to Masha Karp for her translation and her information on George Orwell’s surviving correspondence.

Uploaded August 19 2018

Updated with credits August 19 2018


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