Potion in Roald Dahl's 'George's Marvellous Medicine' would have killed unsuspecting grandmother, doctors warn

Purple bottle isolated in black background with smoke overflowing.
The 'medicine' George Kranky gave this grandmother in the Roald Dahl classic may not have been so 'marvellous' after all. (Stock, Getty Images)

Doctors have warned the concoction George Kranky fed his grandmother in Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine would likely have resulted in her death.

The popular children’s author reportedly described being a medic as one of his “dreams of glory”, which is said to have inspired the 1981 novel.

The 1998 edition was printed with the declaration “For Doctors Everywhere”, revised in 2010 with the warning “Do not try to make George’s Marvellous Medicine yourselves at home. It could be dangerous.”

Medics from the emergency department of Royal Derby Hospital examined all the weird and wonderful ingredients George added to the concoction, including shoe polish, washing powder, engine oil and antifreeze.

After comparing the potion against a poisons’ database, the medics found ingesting more than a third (38%) of the ingredients could lead to life-threatening side effects, including kidney injury, convulsions and damage to the stomach lining.

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While Dahl wrote grandma Kranky “shot up whoosh into the air” after drinking the “marvellous medicine”, the Derby doctors warn the much-loved author left out the more likely outcome: death.

Writing in The BMJ’s Christmas issue – “a mix of quirky comment articles, light-hearted features and peer reviewed original research” – the medics acknowledge it is “unlikely children will recreate each step in the making of a marvellous-type medicine”.

With youngsters spending more time at home amid the coronavirus restrictions, however, parents would be “wise to check any medicinal ingredients for potential toxicity” before encouraging scientific experimentation, they added.

washing powder, detergent in a cup and womans hand, selective focus, washing machine, closeup
Washing powder was one of the 34 ingredients in George's 'marvellous medicine'. (Stock, Getty Images)

Unintentional poisoning is a leading cause of death among children in the UK, with more than 28,000 requiring treatment every year.

Across the European Union, accidental poisonings kill 3,000 children annually.

With most incidents taking place at home, the Derby doctors worried the coronavirus lockdown would lead to a surge in accidents.

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While data on poisonings are unavailable, burns are known to have increased during the “stay at home” restrictions.

Some of the ingredients in George’s “marvellous medicine” are available within the home, prompting the doctors to assess the potion’s risk, but without testing it on an unsuspecting grandmother.

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In Dahl’s story, George, eight, decided to replace his grandmother’s medicine with his own concoction to punish her for repeatedly bossing him around.

The Derby doctors and their five young children combed through the novel, identifying 34 ingredients in George’s potion, from toothpaste to extra hot chilli sauce.

These were checked against those listed in ToxBase, the National Poisons Information Service’s database.

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Results reveal just under half (47%) of the ingredients would likely have caused nausea and vomiting.

Eleven of the potion’s components (32%) were linked to diarrhoea, while six (18%) may have triggered heart rhythm problems.

Most seriously of all, 13 (38%) ingredients were associated with life-threatening injuries, like shutting down the central nervous system.

The scientists praised Dahl for initially describing the seriousness of what grandma Kranky would have endured, with her declaring: “my stomach’s on fire!”

They added, however, “the overall effect would be fatal catastrophic physiological collapse”.

Concoction could be ‘starting point for future pharmaceutical engineers’

While George attempted to help his grandmother with a jug of water, the doctors stressed treatment would have been “complex and require immediate high level care”.

In Dahl’s version of events, grandma Kranky suffered no ill effects, instead growing so large she broke through the roof.

“Our findings suggest that far from being marvellous, George’s medicine is in fact incredibly toxic,” wrote the scientists, stressing “mimicry” is known to play a role in children poisonings.

George’s Marvellous Medicine could be used as a starting point for any future pharmaceutical engineers,” they added.

The doctors pointed out they did not combine the ingredients and therefore cannot comment on the chemical interactions that may occur. The precise doses within the potion are also not documented.

Nevertheless, with children spending more time at home – and their natural desire to explore – parents should be cautious.

“It is unlikely children will recreate each step in the making of a marvellous-type medicine, but it is worth being cautious as some of the household ingredients used by George are considerably dangerous and commonly cause severe morbidity in children,” wrote the scientists.

“Although parents might encourage scientific exploration and experimentation in their children, it would be wise to check any medicinal ingredients for potential toxicity before use.”

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