Death Be Not Proud (book)

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First edition (publ. Harper & Brothers)

Death Be Not Proud is a 1949 memoir by American author John Gunther, taking its name from Holy Sonnet X by John Donne. The story was portrayed in a 1975 TV movie starring Robby Benson as Johnny Gunther and Arthur Hill as John Gunther.


In the book, Gunther records the true story of his teenage son's struggle to overcome a brain tumor, and his ultimate death at 17. The story chronicles the period beginning when Johnny Gunther experiences the first symptoms of the tumor shortly after he had received a clean bill of health. Johnny's complaint of a stiff neck leads doctors to operate, which leads to the discovery of a tumor the size of an orange in his brain.

The book records, in simple detail, all the events and tensions in the months during which Johnny Gunther fought for his life, and his parents sought to help him through recourse to every medical treatment then known. After his last surgery, it was certain that the tumor was inoperable and had gone deep into his brain.

Both his parents knew the end of his life was near but still had plans for Johnny to spend his summer in the country. Even though no doctor gave him a chance of overcoming the tumor, Johnny was never told that he was dying

In the end, his death came quickly, as a result of the tumor rupturing a blood vessel in his brain. He died in a hospital, his parents at his side, at the age of 17, "like a thief death took him," his father writes. Johnny is described in his coffin movingly: "all that is left of a life!"


Partly because of its stark honesty about the pain that the effects of the struggle on family at a time that cancer was a taboo subject, which was rarely talked about, and partly because of its refreshingly revealing portrait of a brilliant young man, who had discovered a new way to liquefy ammonia, who was struck down too young by incurable illness, Death Be Not Proud became a best-selling book that is still popular today. The story was eventually made into a television movie in 1975, starring Robby Benson as Johnny Gunther, and Arthur Hill as his father.


Johnny is an example of a truly valiant person. He is selfless in his hope that he will not cause too much pain for others. In Johnny's last few weeks on earth, he still hungers for knowledge. He does not give up because of his illness. He still has hopes and dreams intact.

His parents are also notable for the remarkable degree of communication and care they managed to share with each other and their son when his diagnosis was confirmed, and on to the end of his life. Although by the time of his diagnosis they had divorced and were living separately, they transcended distance, time, and whatever history had led them to separate in order to discuss carefully and kindly the options, care, and ongoing prognosis for his life.

Frances Gunther, his mother, takes care to have conversations with him about the ultimate issues of life and suffering as addressed in many cultures worldwide, making spiritual writings accessible to him and impressing on him the value of his thoughts and the effect of his actions on others.

Johnny's character is inspirational to not only his parents, but his caregivers as well, who employ sometimes radical treatments to try and save his life. Among them are Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield and Dr. Max Gerson, whose "Gerson diet" was used.

Wilder Penfield wrote a letter to his family after his death saying, "for such there must be an immortality which we who tinker at the body may guess at but not understand." [1]


Death Be Not Proud takes place in part in contemporary New York City, in the Neurological Institute, and at the Deerfield Academy where Johnny was a student, and at his mother's home in Connecticut. The Neurological institute rises tall above the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. Johnny Gunther, a cancer patient, stays in this hospital, on and off, during the last three years of his life. He also stays at the Gerson facility for a time. The family moves him to his mother's home in Connecticut when he is able, he visits his school briefly, to graduate with his class, then dies two weeks later.


The main theme of this book is how death and illness affect people, and how courage and a commitment to live fully in the face of daily discouragement and frequent setbacks transform such a life, however brief. During the fifteen months that Johnny had cancer, while going through many upheavals that most families do not experience, the Gunther family continued to be grateful he was still alive, and to celebrate that life. Although Johnny died at age 17, the Gunthers were grateful that he had survived as long as he had, and had continued to live as vibrantly and as intelligently as possible.

The title of the book, taken from Donne's poem, which ends with a comment on "the death of Death," summarizes this: Death had nothing to be proud of in Johnny's case. His (and his parents') wise, brave choices in living a brief life fully overcame any final destruction of the spirit that a fear of oncoming death might have otherwise wrought.

John 'Papa' Gunther[edit]

The journalist, John Gunther, was a devoted father. John is the narrator of this heartbreaking story. He explains his beloved son’s battle with a brain tumor. He made sure to be with his son as often as possible, and to talk with him through his trials. John’s personality was quite subtle and he didn’t express his emotions.

Johnny Gunther[edit]

John Gunther, Jr. (1929–1947) was an intelligent teenager living a life too soon aimed towards death. During his struggle with a brain tumor, Johnny studied on his own, received tutoring and took his school's proper exams, including college entrance. He did chemical experiments to follow up on ideas he developed even while ill. Though faced with death he continued to follow his dreams. Johnny was loved for his selflessness and his curiosity about life. He is portrayed throughout the memoir as a brilliant young man who tried with all his strength to defeat his brain tumor.

Publication data[edit]

  • John Gunther, Death Be Not Proud (1949). Harper Perennial edition 1998: ISBN 0-06-092989-8


  1. ^ Wall Street Journal 01/26/08: W8

External links[edit]