By Jahyra White
When Mark Twain’s baby son died of diphtheria, he blamed himself.
At 19 months, Langdon Clemens was in carriage, riding with his parents in 1872.
“The blanket that was covering Langdon fell away,” said Mark Twain House & Museum Chief Curator Patti Philippon, and the author took responsibility. “He really took it upon himself.”
The boy, who was born premature on Nov. 7, 1870, had always been sickly. He caught diphtheria and died.
But Dr. Dr. K. Patrick Ober, an endocrinologist at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina who has studied Langdon’s death, said Twain wasn’t to blame.
The boy died of diphtheria but his father didn’t cause it, Ober said. If Langdon was living today, Ober said, he wouldn’t ever have had diphtheria.
Dr. Leonard Banco, a pediatrician and chief medical officer at Bristol Hospital, said that children today get four shots to prevent diphtheria by the age of 18 months.
“It would have been totally different,” said Banco, if Langdon had been born today.
Banco said diphtheria is caused by a bacteria and is spread person to person. He said it used to be very common, especially in small children and starts like a severe sore throat.
A yellow membrane develops in the thoat, Banco said, that cuts off the airway. Eventually the child suffocates, he said.
There wasn’t anything parents or doctors could do to stop it.
“There were big epidemics of it,” said Banco. “Parents used to worry about that a lot.”
A vaccine was developed and immunizations began in the 1940s, Banco said, and today, the vaccine is key to preventing diphtheria around the world.