Q and A: What Potentially Fatal Disease Could My Young Female Character Suffer From in 1955?

20 Feb

Q: I have been browsing through FORENSICS AND FICTION but do not see the perfect solution for my story. In my WIP, set in 1955 St. Louis, a 10 year old girl has a medical problem which is difficult to diagnose. She has been living on the streets but is rescued by an older woman who takes her for medical help. Once the doctor determines the problem, he recommends treatment. Trouble is, the only place for treatment is California, so they must take a road trip. (I want it to be CA because I want them to travel on Route 66)

At first, I considered exposure to sewer gas as a good diagnosis. But once she got out of the sewers she would get well. That won’t do. I’m thinking it must be an autoimmune disease or a parasitic or unusual infectious disease. Can you think of a fatal disease in those categories which would have had cutting edge treatment being done experimentally in CA in the 50s?

Catherine Leggitt, Author, Inspirational Speaker

A: As you pointed out, sewer gas wouldn’t work since once your young lady was free of the environment its effects quickly reverse. I would suggest leukemia. In 1955, acute leukemia in a child that age was common, there was no treatment, and most sufferers died. The mortality remained around 90% for many types of leukemia until well into the 1970s. It could be months or many years between first becoming ill and dying, but death was almost inevitable in 1950s. The timeline would depend on how aggressive the particular leukemia was and how well your child handled it. But medicine could do very little.

In leukemia, white blood cells (WBCs) are overproduced by the bone marrow. These cells are abnormal in that they don’t fight diseases as do normal WBCs. This would leave the child susceptible to infections such as pneumonia, urinary tract infections, even the flu. Each bout of any of these could be weathered with antibiotics—penicillin and sulfa drugs were around in 1955—or she could die from any of these diseases.

Leukemia Cells are seen here as large and purple; the smaller pale red ones are RBCs

Leukemia Cells are seen here as large and purple; the smaller pale red ones are RBCs

As the WBCs increase in the bone marrow they literally “squeeze out” the marrow cells that make red blood cells (RBCs) and platelets. Low RBCs we call anemia and here she would be fatigued, short of breath with activity, and her physical abilities would be limited by these factors. She might appear pale and take on the look of someone who is chronically fatigued, which she would be. Platelets are involved in blood clotting so with low platelets she would bleed easily, with even the most minor trauma. She could easily have episodic nose bleeds and would bruise very easily.

Most leukemia victims suffered all three of these derangements–high but abnormal WBCs, low RBCs, and low platelets–so your girl could have any of the above symptoms, in any combination, and in any degree of severity.

Since there were no effective treatments in 1955, patients and parents sought all kinds of treatments. Herbs, electrical current, tonics of all types (most of which were alcohol based), faith healers, and almost anything you can think of. Your young girl could easily be referred to someone “out in California” by her local St. Louis doctor.

This should give you a lot to work with for your story.

Google Leukemia and you will find many sources but remember that things are much different now than in 1955. Here are a couple of links to get started:


Posted by on February 20, 2013 in Medical History, Medical Issues


7 responses to “Q and A: What Potentially Fatal Disease Could My Young Female Character Suffer From in 1955?

  1. Leann Sweeney

    February 20, 2013 at 10:42 am

    From personal experience, my sister had an autoimmune reaction to chicken pox during that time. It was very difficult to figure out and she nearly died (she had no blisters and developed septicemia). Children during that era also died from untreated strep (leading to Rheumatic fever, Scarlet fever and resulting heart and kidney disease) and also measles. Measles could make children extremely sick and lead to death long after the rash had disappeared.


  2. Pat Marinelli

    February 20, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    My first though was Polio. I remember we go the Salk vaccine just after that time in school


  3. Bryan Koepke

    February 20, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Interesting post. It’s alway good to learn more about medicine.


  4. David H. Ingram

    February 20, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    One interesting aspect of Leukemia and living on the streets of St. Louis in the 1950s is that it could have been caused by secret government testing. In 1994 it was revealed that the Army ran tests releasing zinc cadmium sulfide, treated with florescent particles, into the atmosphere in St. Louis, starting in 1953. “After the project became known in Congress in 1994, the Post-Dispatch was among newspapers that combed through newly released documents for details. The documents showed that in 1953 alone, the military conducted 16 tests involving 35 separate releases of zinc cadmium sulfide in St. Louis, many in an area described at the time as “a densely populated slum district.” (from an article in the Post-Dispatch 9/23/12) A professor at St. Louis Community College who has written about the project suggests the tests could have also involved radioactive isotopes, to explore the effect of nuclear war.. But you may not want to go there, Catherine.


  5. Cheryl B. Dale

    February 20, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    A family member died of leukemia in the fifties when he was a teen. I understand he was taken down to Florida, I think maybe Tampa?, for treatment. I imagine California would offer similar facilities.


  6. Catherine Leggitt

    February 21, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    I greatly appreciate the information and all the comments. My cousin who is a retired Dr. also had these suggestions to add:

    1. Juvenile arthritis, which affects about 1 in 1,000 children
    Not that hard to diagnose and would be treated locally.

    2. Type 1 (juvenile) diabetes, which affects 1 to 2 of every 10,000 children
    Again, not very hard to diagnose and the only treatment would be insulin injections for life.

    3. Immune (or idiopathic) thrombocytopenia purpura (ITP), which occurs in 3 to 8 out of 100,000 children.
    This might be a good candidate. (Thrombocytopenia means low platelets.)

    ITP is pretty rare. Back in the 50s, it would have been called idiopathic, which means they had no idea what caused it. Later, they determined that ITP is an autoimmune disease. The disease destroys platelets and causes bleeding problems. The presenting symptoms are mostly bruises that might look like a person has been beat up. Often misdiagnosed until a CBC shows very low platelets. Back in the 50s, the treatment would be steroids (cortisone, etc) and even that is not very effective. You could say that this rare disease without a known cause would need to be treated in a major medical center such as Stanford or UCLA. Does this work for you?

    (BTW, current knowledge for most autoimmune diseases calls for eating no animal derived foods. Almost all autoimmune diseases are caused by animal proteins that cross the intestinal barrier. The immune system makes antibodies to destroy the foreign protein. Unfortunately, some of these proteins are nearly identical to proteins found in the body and the antibodies destroy those as well. An example is Multiple Sclerosis.)



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