Daughters Died of Illnesses That Can Be Treated Today
By Lina Allam
Like any father, Samuel Clemens adored his children and worked hard to provide them with the life that he never had.
But during the 1800’s medicine wasn’t as advanced as it is today, and Clemens lost three of his four children at a young age to medical troubles that might have been prevented today.
Clemens, famous for the writing he did under the pen name Mark Twain, lost h is first and only son, Langdon, to diphtheria around the age of 19 months.
Clemens and his wife Olivia also had three girls: Suzy, Clara, and Jane, who lived in the family’s Hartford home until their teenage years.
But when their father lost all his money from investing in the failed invention, the Paige Compositor, he traveled the world doing public speaking to pay off his debts.
When the time came for his family to return home, his oldest daughter, Suzy, then 24 years old, died of meningitis.
Meningitis is a bacterial or viral infection that attacks the brain or spinal cord. The viral strain is untreatable, but eventually the patient’s organs are able to defend the body against the virus, though it could take a week or two.
Bacterial meningitis can be treated through antibiotics, however if it is not treated, it can be fatal. This deadly type of meningitis – called meningococcal disease – causes an overwhelming infection in the body’s internal organs.
If antibiotics are given early during the infestation, the antibiotics could save a life, said Dr. Leonard Banco, a pediatrician and the chief medical officer of Bristol Hospital.
At the time Suzy died, there weren’t antibiotics available to treat the disease, according to Dr. K. Patrick Ober, an endocrinologist at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina who has a keen interest in historical medicine.
Jean, the youngest daughter, was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 15 and suffered seizures.
Banco said epilepsy is a seizure disorder that occurs in an organism mainly because of incorrect wiring in the brain. In a person with epilepsy, this causes seizures to sometimes occur in order for the body to regain its normal state. They can include the clenching of teeth and intense shaking, Banco said, and sometimes loss of consciousness.
An epileptic episode occurs because of a large discharge of energy released by the brain, Banco said.
But unlike meningitis, epilepsy cannot be cured and is often something that one is born with.
Without antibiotics and other medicine, Ober said, medical treatment during the time of Mark Twain was limited. Some medicines doctors used, including Lepomane, which is a drug like heroin and often leads to addiction, could be harmful.
Without other options, doctors also often tried to bleed the patient out in order to remove any of the “bad” or “sick” blood, Ober said.
Doctors had no way to treat meningitis in Jean’s day. Ober said there was no medicine for epilepsy. Many medical professionals at the time thought that the epileptic seizures were the cause of intense amount of stress.
Though her family tried to keep Jean calm, she died of a heart-attack brought on by a seizure in 1909. She was 29.
Today, epilepsy is most treated with anti-seizure medicine, though sometimes other treatments are used, according to information provided by the Mayo Clinic.