Through the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, children were frequently having heart attacks after being administered anesthetic. As Mosher says,
A thymic death is one of the supreme tragedies of surgery. An apparently healthy child dies during the administration of an anesthetic, during or after an uncomplicated tonsil and adenoid operation, or, as recently happened, during a simple circumcision. Again, as reported by one of our medical examiners, a child was standing on the edge of the sidewalk. A runaway horse dashed by and the child dropped dead. At autopsy the condition known as status lymphaticus was found; that is, there was an enlarged thymus and a hypertrophy of all the lymphoid structures of the alimentary canal … This slight pathology was all that was found to explain the unexpected death. (Harris P. Mosher, “An Original Communication,” “A Clinical and Preoperative Study of the Thymus in Children of the Tonsil and Adenoid Age,” The Laryngoscope Vol.36. Jan. 1926.)
Upon examination of the child’s body, the thymus was frequently found larger than expected. Everything else was normal. Since the thymus is pretty close to the heart, doctors decided to routinely radiate the thymus in children to shrink it in size.
From 1924 to 1946, it was the policy of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston to apply prophylactic irradiation in every case in which an “enlarged” thymus gland was diagnosed in infancy. … Whenever the width of the superior mediastinum was at least half the width of the heart the gland was characterized as `enlarged’ or `suspicious,’ and the child was given radiation treatment… (M.L. Janower & O.S. Miettenen, “Neoplasms after Childhood Irradiation of the Thymus Gland,” Journal of the American Medical Association Vol.215: 753. 1971.)
It turns out that there was no ‘slight pathology’ of an enlarged thymus: medical cadavers actually had smaller glands than on average. Chronic stress leads to the thymus becoming smaller, and these men and women before death were under extreme amounts of stress. Cadavers were, for one hundred and fifty years, collected from poor houses. These were people that were near death without access to proper medical care. The auxiliary hypothesis “Children that died immediately after being administered anesthetic have an enlarged thymus” was wrong–dead wrong.
All the evidence corroborated status lymphaticus as a cause of heart attacks, and yet it also corroborated the theory that doctors were misapplying anesthetic to children. No one thought to figure out the correct proportion for children. Thousands of children died.
What are we wrong about right now?