By Jim Buchanan
There was a time not all that long ago when seeing a kid get through childhood with their tonsils intact was pretty much just a matter of dumb luck.
Public health officials around a century ago decided that tonsillectomy/adenoidectomy surgery was a fine measure to improve the welfare of American children. The reasoning was that tonsils were a gateway to infection, and that removing them from several generations of children was sound therapy.
Clinics were frequently set up at public schools where children in waves would part with their tonsils. It was an accepted, indeed welcomed, practice encouraged by parents around the country.
Except for those riots. We’ll circle back to those in a bit.
This story begins with reader Nancy Sherrill Wilson, who is a fine historical and family researcher and graciously passes along items she finds of interest. She came across the tale of Harry Sumner and local tonsillitis clinics.
Wilson wrote, “Harry was a student of perhaps age 6 or 7 and had his tonsils removed at one of these clinics, probably around 1947 or 1948. He recalled an Army MASH unit setting up the gymnasium with Army cots and blankets. He described the device they used to remove the tonsils – a metal wire loop apparatus – (per Harry ‘jerked them out’) and especially remembered the foul smelling anesthesia used, which he thought was ‘ether or it could have been chloroform.’ In ‘The History of Jackson County’ on page 15 it confirmed that both were early anesthetics used and applied through a mask.”
Wilson found Jackson County Journal articles on tonsil clinics here in 1923, 1924 and 1938, the latter reporting that “…43 Jackson County children had their tonsils removed at a clinic held on Tuesday and Wednesday at the High School building in Sylva. The clinic was held by the county health department.”
Articles from The Sylva Herald included accounts of 84 children having their tonsils removed in 1944, 50 more in 1945 and a 1947 article recounting that “Children who attended the (tonsil) clinics were operated on in the morning and remained overnight, sleeping in the gymnasium of the school on cots, under the care of a night nurse.” Wilson noted the same article stated that the clinics had been sponsored by the Health Department annually since 1938.
The tonsil push in North Carolina started in earnest in 1917 when George Cooper was appointed director of the State Board of Health’s Bureau of Medical Inspection. He instituted tonsil and adenoid clinics in 1919.
The riots were well prior to that date. In 1906 New York, according to research done by an online magazine devoted to Jewish news and culture called Tablet, tonsillitis was keeping kids out of school, and doctors set about performing tonsillectomies. Notes were sent to parents, largely immigrants who couldn’t speak English and probably couldn’t be deciphered even if they did, being packed with medical jargon, and with kids coming home spitting out blood, tales of health-department slaughter of children quickly spread, prompting tens of thousands to surround schools and targeting doctors. Only on finding the children alive did the anger die down.
Debates over the effectiveness of tonsillectomies, reason for conducting them and other approaches saw the practice decline going into the 1950s after peaking at around 1.5 million procedures a year. Today tonsillectomies are often used to treat sleep apnea.