Postscript: Peter Pan's Pediatricians

May 1, 2007

The boy who never grew up and London's Great Ormond Street Hospital

The Great Ormond Street Hospital in London is one of Britain's most respected children's hospitals. Yet one child's longevity has been a longstanding issue for them. This 10-year-old patient has the most peculiar variety of failure to thrive the world has ever seen. He has not grown an inch since they started caring for him, yet he is very active and appears to be in otherwise extraordinary health.

GOSH, as the specialist hospital is known, is where pediatricians refer cases that need extra care and attention. And the case study is that of Peter Pan, swashbuckling resident of Never-Neverland and occasional visitor to London's open windows.

During their sojourns to the park, Barrie would tell them about a baby who fell out of a carriage and grew up in the park wild. The story expanded into a full-on play, then a novel, both of which are still popular a century later. Barrie credited his five boys with the character. "I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame," he wrote in an introduction. "That is all he is, the spark I got from you."

While everyone knows Peter, not everyone knows his greatest act of heroism. In 1929 the Great Ormond Street Hospital asked Barrie to sit on one of its boards. Barrie said he had a better idea, and then donated his royalties and performing rights to GOSH. All the money he would have received from a reprinting or restaging of Peter Pan went to the children's hospital.

Barrie joked that he did this because Peter Pan, as a baby, was a patient at GOSH's Hospital for Sick Children. He did stipulate that the figure of how many pounds the hospital receives never be made public. Only GOSH knows how many millions Peter has swooped in to help sick kids.

While most British copyrights expire in 50 years after the author's death, an act of Parliament has kept Peter Pan's copyright alive in perpetuity, the first of its kind. It is fitting that just as Peter will never grow up, his legal status will never mature either.

(The full story is actually much more complicated. Copyright laws in different countries, copyright status of book and play sequels, and the act of Parliament have together made Peter Pan's copyright status one of the toughest tangles in legal history. Even tougher is trying to justify why you should be allowed to rewrite Peter Pan without sharing some of your profits with a children's hospital.)

So what has the work of the boy who could fly done? GOSH works with University College London's Institute of Child Health to be England's largest pediatric research and teaching center. It specializes in children with multiple disorders, diseases, or birth conditions, almost all referred from other specialist pediatricians. It sees almost 100,000 patients a year from around the globe, with a staff of 2,700 (and another 400 student nurses). Open-heart surgery, heart and lung transplants, cystic fibrosis, leukemia, neurosurgery, plastic surgery, drug therapy, genetic disorders-the only word to describe all of GOSH's work is, appropriately, gosh.

Newly-constructed facilities for families allow them to stay close to their sick children around the clock. Continuing work allows for older facilities to be updated for the modern age, tough when your hospital was started in 1852, in a building from the 17th century. Maybe Peter's biggest irony is that the boy who never grew up has helped so many thousands of other kids to do just that.