Past Pylorix Pages – Pyloric Stenosis treatment in the 1940s (2)

In my previous post, I looked at a survey of 112 infant pyloric stenosis (“PS”) cases by which a regional British hospital shaped its preferences and policies for the treatment of this disease in the 1940s.  I’m very interested in the development of medical science, not least so because the 1940s were when I had my first surgery.  It saved my life but frankly, it also messed me up somewhat.

Many medical journal articles were written on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1940s about the best ways of treating PS babies.  In my previous blog I mentioned also that these reports and letters make it clear that there was quite some variety in the treatments chosen and even some disagreement, although always expressed as professional gentlemen should.

A New York surgeon, Dr Edward J Donovan, wrote with considerable enthusiasm in a 1946 issue of Annals of Surgery about his success in operating on 507 PS babies since 1932, with a commendable (in those times) 1.7% mortality rate.

He dismissed medical treatment (with atropine and its relation eumydrin) as a waste of valuable time, making great demands on hospital staff and resources and the parents, and all this for (he claimed) uncertain results.  PS babies are often dangerously dehydrated by the time a hospital will admit them, so as soon as they had been stabilised Dr Donovan would operate.  He also dismissed x-ray confirmation of the diagnosis as unnecessary and delaying the recovery, and local anesthesia as making life harder for both the surgeon and the patient, and slowing healing.  He favoured ether anesthetic and a vertical right rectus incision, and brought only the pylorus out through the opening.  He found that the liver and various muscle layers covering the stomach area worked on and stitching the various tissue layers separately resulted in only one wound rupture in his patients.  He used small clips to close the skin layer, leaving more but much smaller scars than stitches.
Other complications were also rare: one baby caught pneumonia and had surgery with local anesthetic, the gastric passage was accidentally opened in two babies, and one baby developed adhesions and needed more surgery after 6 weeks.  Normally breast-fed babies could be discharged after 10 days and bottle-fed infants after two weeks.

There was a response from a Boston colleague who agreed fully with Dr Donovan’s methods although he had changed to using a “high gridiron” (under the right ribs) incision.  He reported he’d had no deaths from 225 cases during the past 3½ years.  A Chicago surgeon responded that he worked with local anesthesia.

Another US surgeon, Dr Charles A Vance of Lexington Kentucky, wrote an extensive article in the same journal two years earlier (March 1944).  After reviewing the history of infant PS surgery in the world and in the USA, he recorded his knowledge and treatment of the malady.  Like Dr Donovan he believed that surgery was the better treatment, seeing the high surgery death rates of earlier decades had been overcome in North America.  His technique was also similar to that of Dr Donovan, except that he stitched the skin.  In 24 years since 1920 he operated on 27 PS babies with one death (from unknown causes) and no other complications.

A North Carolina doctor responded to this article.  Over 16 years he had done 60 pyloromyotomies, using local anesthesia and without any fatality; he had ruptured the duodenum in a few cases.  He also used the right rectus incision and closed the skin with silk or cotton sutures.

Meanwhile in Britain
Comparing these two US articles with others from both sides of the Atlantic, it becomes clear that by the 1940s surgery had become the PS treatment of choice for most if not all surgeons, but also that there remained a sizable body of other medical workers who advocated the non-invasive approach as a responsible and less traumatic (if more onerous) first option in many cases.

It is also clear that routine was (and remains) one of the important factors for a successful outcome: like the rest of us, surgeons need to adopt a regular procedure and continuously aim to improve on it.  Like most of us they are generally reluctant to consider, let alone try working in new ways just because others recommend or claim success for it.  So diagnosis, options for treatment, anesthesia, the incision, wound repair and post-operative care are hard to change, whatever the benefits might be.

In the British Isles, it took much longer than in North America for the infection bogey to be slain, particularly in the public hospitals.  Dr David Levi, a prominent London surgeon, wrote often in British medical publications on PS and its surgery.  In a July 1941 British Medical Journal article he made what I consider are some very interesting points.

He first reports that all 100 of his tiny patients who were breast-fed and operated on were PS survivors, because this combination gave them a large measure of protection from cross infection with gastroenteritis, which was the largest single hazard for both medical and surgical PS patients while they were in hospital.  In contrast, of the 46 artificially fed babies he worked on, 5 died, all from gastroenteritis.

Dr Levi then reports that –

  • He prefers local anesthesia and a warm operating theatre because ether anesthetic and the associated chilling are distressing and induce shock.
  • He uses an upper midline incision and through two skin punctures he would inject the region and several levels of the wound with local anesthetic.
  • Nothing was allowed to leave the abdomen except the offending pylorus.
  • Gentleness is more important than speed.  And if the child is under local anaesthesia, and the theatre is warm, speed is of little moment.” And:
  • Local anesthesia allows the infant to resume feeding with less or no after-effects and thus more quickly.

On the other side of the medicine-versus-surgery-for-PS debate, the British Medical Journal included a report in May 1946 validating the place of medical treatment.  The author, Dr N M Jacoby, a senior English physician, acknowledged that surgery had largely replaced medical treatment, but asserted that eumydrin could avoid unnecessary surgery, provided that clear criteria were followed.  The article repeated these (see the previous post also) and reported on 50 babies given each treatment – and both series being without deaths.

The treatment criteria referred to in the previous post and recommended by Dr J N Jacoby

But in the English-speaking world at least, the surgical treatment increasingly ruled supreme!

The debate about anesthesia also continued with vigour, and in my next post I will review the small flood of material that appeared around 1950 on this issue.

The pieces come together

I am one of those who had PS surgery as a newborn during the 1940s.  My parents would (or possibly could) never talk about it with me, and all my life I have wanted to overcome the deafening silence I just could not banish, and been anxious to find the answer to several questions.  It is exciting and reassuring for me that at last the puzzle pieces are coming together.

  • Knowing as I do that my operation occurred at 10 days, the available material has taught me that I was a standard early onset case of PS.  It seems such cases were best sent for surgery as soon as their condition had been stabilised.
  • The scars from what would have been intravenous feeding inserts under my arms tell me that I needed treatment for dehydration before surgery, also normal.  At just 10 days this would have marked me as a severe case, unlikely to respond to medical therapy quickly enough to survive and to escape almost inevitable surgery in an even worse condition.
  • The upper midline incision I had is rarely used now for PS babies but it and the right vertical incision were the standard ones in most countries until this time when especially US surgeons started to prefer transverse incisions, still common today for PS babies.
  • It seems from Dr Levi’s articles and the two small white spots to the left of my incision scar that I was given local anesthesia rather than ether: this also seems to have been common practice in the 1940s.
  • Images of several vertical scars like mine are available on the web – some like mine with a cratered spot along the incision line scar.  I’ve often wondered about the cause of this, and as I had suspected, it seems a drainage tube was sometimes left in the wound.
  • In the 1940’s subcutaneous (under-the-skin) wound closure (if in fact done) is never mentioned: its cosmetic benefits in the baby’s future were not considered. Layered stitches are usually used to close underlying tissue.  Until fairly recent times, the skin was closed in one of two ways with little or no regard for cosmetic outcomes.  Separate silk or cotton stitches often tore through or irritated delicate young skin, or more numerous but far less damaging little clips were used, like today’s surgical staples.  This at last explains why the scars from my and others’ stitches have grown with us to be as large and unsightly as they are.


These images show scars from the classic surgical incisions originally used to relieve infant pyloric stenosis, and seem to have been the most common during the 1940s and 1950s. This pair is from upper midline incisions. The wound on the left was closed with sutures (stitches), the right one with clips or staples.

Pyloric stenosis surgery using a “para-midline” (or vertical but in these cases, right-of-centre) incision became the most popular technique for many years of the mid 20th century.  It was claimed to give several advantages over the original standard, the midline, although the statistics don’t seem to bear this out and one suspects the choice was more a matter of “I’ve been taught to do it this way.”

Again, the scar on the left shows this wound was stitched, and the right wound seems to have been stapled.

I am grateful to the people who have shared their photos publicly to help others with damaged bodies feel we are not alone.

During the past decade a “medical secret” has come to light that may be significant to many thousands of PS survivors.  It is probably not by oversight that in five years of reading old medical journal articles, I have never found a trace of this “secret” in the contemporary medical literature.

In the USA at least during about 1950 – 1986, infant surgery was often done without any pain control, let alone anesthesia “because babies don’t feel or remember pain”.

This has had terrible effects, the extent of which is quite unknown, and may be behind at the very least some of the inborn anger, depression, stress related maladies, and obsessions of the people concerned.  Several of the links to the right of my blogs deal with this in some detail, and this blogsite has and will continue to write about it.

13 thoughts on “Past Pylorix Pages – Pyloric Stenosis treatment in the 1940s (2)

  1. wendy williams

    Another fantastic write-up. Question: So if some US surgeons were using ether anesthesia in the 40s as were the two doctors you mentioned in your post, did a change in policy occur in the 50s? Do you think that each hospital had its own protocol, some using ether, some locals, others none? In the US in the 40s, do you think anesthesia was generally used and that in the 50s, it wasn’t? I’d so appreciate your thoughts about these issues. Thank you!

  2. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    Several US associations of anesthetists (as I understand it was) changed their policy on infant pain and the (non-)use of anesthesia for infants in the mid 1980s to set aside false and dated ideas that infants don’t feel and/or remember pain. This followed research findings and resulted in guidelines for measuring and treating the pain of babies and children.
    It would be so interesting to know what the earlier policy was, when it was adopted, and what (if anything) preceded that one. I’m afraid I suspect there are some things that are kept under wraps by those with an interest in that happening, and that the medical profession runs a very tight ship… sometimes but certainly not always with good reason.
    I have several times come across references to every specialist and hospital having its own protocols and preferred procedures – most people and organisations do. We work more efficiently and safely that way. The evidence seems to show that different countries, hospitals and specialists each in their own sphere of responsibility had their preferred ways of working and that there was no centrally directed practice regarding e.g. anesthesia.
    Other areas of human endeavour function similarly: education for instance, has certain things set in law but much detail is delegated. E.g, teaching children to spell by phonics or the whole-language method depends on how a teacher learnt to spell, where they trained, as well as state and school policies, and the school management.
    Because of what seems like a code of silence on surgery that was done without pain management, I’m sorry that it may be difficult for “outsiders” to ever get a clear answer to your very pertinent questions.
    How much was anesthesia used in infant surgery in the USA during the 1950s? Watch this space!

  3. West Pearson

    I was born in March of 1948 in Texas and was operated on at age 28 days for pyloric stenosis. Per family history, there were no anesthetics used. I was supposedly tied down to a yoke and had IVs in each ankle, which (I was told) I ripped out of each ankle. To this day, I have a scar on each ankle from this. Prior to the surgery, my parents were told that I would not survive. Now, at age 66, been healthy my entire life and not hospitalized since that event.

    1. Fred Vanderbom Post author

      Thank you West, for adding your story to this post. What happened to us was certainly horrific and distressing for our parents, but it was the standard practice in many hospitals, and hey, we’re both here and well! General anesthetics were widely regarded as too hazardous for babies’ immature heart and lungs and only a few doctors used them. We were all tied down to a yoke; I have a picture of that on file. IVs were inserted into cut-downs at the ankles when a baby was too dehydrated to find a vein elsewhere: this procedure in itself was not pretty. I have IV scars in both armpits, not as radical! “Ah, for the good ol’ days!” I’m grateful that I’ve also been able to stay out of hospital since that first time: physically I’ve never looked back. I gather that psychologically you have had no problems either? I wish I could say that (and I’m not alone there) but it’s been impossible for me to track down the exact reason for my trauma, other than discover some of the likely causes. Thanks again and you keep on keeping well!

  4. Anthony Rawlings

    Dear Sir, I have never had the doctor’s name that operated on me in St Charles Hospital in August 1947, I was put on Morphine substitute. I was baptized at St Charles Hospital in 18th of August 1947, I also had odd feet that was operated on the same day that I was operated, to which I cannot know what day it was. On about the 23 to the 25 of August Morphine Substitute was put on the Lancet. When I was about 6 to 8 years old, my mother was told when her and myself went to hospital that my operation was in the Lancet. Can you find out what doctor operated on me, because my mother never now how he was.
    Kind Regards A G Rawlings

    1. Fred Vanderbom Post author

      Thank you for your information here and your request. Babies and children were often given a hospital Baptism in the 1940s if they were facing life-or-death treatment. My parents never told me whether I did.
      About your request of me, I’m sorry that I cannot help you, as I do not have access to back copies of The Lancet or to the records of the Hospital you mention. May I suggest that if possible you try to visit the Hospital and ask if they still have a record of your admission, operation, and doctor’s name. They will need proof of your identity and date and place of birth. However, many hospitals destroy their records after a given period (typically 20 years).
      I am in Australia and even in the UK I would not be allowed to get information about your operation from their records.
      Receive my best wishes!

    2. Anthony Rawlings

      The doctor that operated on me told my mother after I was operated on, I have done my operation, now it is up to the sluts of nurses to look after your son. My mother had seen me in a room without a nurse in there, she had spoken to the Matron, and she took me home and I had milk every hour of 24 hours in my home at Kensington Park Road. St Charles Hospital cannot tell me what operation I had at August 1947.

      1. Fred Vanderbom Post author

        An amazing story there, Anthony! I am so grateful you shared this part of your first hospital experience here, as it represents another side of what happened in those distant times. Most babies were kept in hospital for a very long time, isolated from their mother and family, but we all hope very diligently cared for. But as we keep hearing today, medical staff can also be rude, harsh, and uncaring towards their patients, next-of-kin, and their colleagues. Like me, I am sure you will be grateful to have lived to retell your story over many years. Best wishes for some more!

  5. Anthony Rawlings

    Dear Fred,
    I now have dementia about two years ago, but I like to tell you that in 1971 I went to Australia and I brought a house in Brisbane. In 1974 I sold my house and had a seven week cruise to Hong Kong, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, Tokyo, and Nagasaki the ship I was on was called Marco Polo. I use to buy Seville Row suits before I went to Australia and again when I come home. So I had a bad start and a bad finish, but I have enjoyed my life and always will.

  6. Helen & Fred Vanderbom

    Dear Anthony,
    Thanks for your response. It’s so good to know that people who made a rough start in life (and PS is typically tough on the parents as well as the child) can still have a good ond long life! It sounds like you have had some good experiences, as have I. I hope the dementia doesn’t trouble you and your dearest ones too much – it can be gentle or nasty. Best wishes!

  7. Anthony Rawlings

    I have been told that the Lancet will not put anyone’s name on if they were operated on, my operation was put on ice and had my feet’s operated on, I do not know if the doctor was David Levi, because it was in the Lancet in 1950 having Odd Feet.
    Best Wishes!

  8. blueberryyoshi

    I was born July of 66, my 2nd born had Pyloric Stenosis. I was told or had thought you old timers had all died. My incision is a small vertical one, above my belly button. Almost invisible. TY for your stories!!!!

    1. Fred Vanderbom Post author

      Ah, no! This old timer is still very much alive and keen to tell his own and pass your and others’ stories. If your 1966 PS souvenir is worth a picture, feel free to send it via the email address under the “About me” tab – with or without a story and conditions/ requests. And your parents were far from the first to be told that PS surgery’s progress was as “recent” as you are! Even back in 1945 the death rate had fallen to about 5% – at least if you were lucky enough to have a good surgeon and hospital care. In some “public” (publicly funded or supported) hospitals at the time in many countries (incl. USA, UK, and Australia) the mortality rate could still be 50-50 until the 1950s and 60s or so, largely due to high infection rates and penicillin use being in its early days.


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