Tonsillectomies a Hundred Years Ago

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Wednesday, March 11, 1914:    Pa took us into town this morning to take the train for mother went along with me. Had never been to Williamsport before and rather enjoyed the trip, going up anyway. You may be sure I took in all the sights.

After we arrived in the city we went directly to the specialist’s office; there the operation was performed.

Was given chloroform and after being under its influence for about half an hour I came to. Ma told me afterwards that I yelled and groaned like everything, so it must have hurt some. I soon became conscious of a very sore throat. Two tonsils had been removed and an adenoid. Was soon able to get up and take a walk with Ma. Arrived home safely. Oh my, the swallowing process is terrible.

Recent picture of Williamsport (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Recent picture of Williamsport (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

I’m amazed that Grandma had never previously been to Williamsport. It is only about 20 miles from McEwensville—though the train would have had to go through some mountains to get there.

I’m also surprised that Grandma apparently never visited the doctor who removed her tonsils prior to the date of the surgery.

Tonsillectomies apparently were very popular a hundred years ago.I even found a book published in 1914 called Adenoids and Kindred Perils of School Life by D.T. Atkinson, M.D.  Here are some quotes and pictures:

Enlarged tonsils and adenoid growths are responsible for many cases of persistent cough. Persons who breathe through their mouths carry into the larynx, twenty times or so a minute, a current of air which has not been freed from dust by the filtering process of the nose, and which is not moistened.

The consequences are that the larynx is kept dry and irritated and responds rapidly to atmospheric changes. Some authorities on the throat have reached the conclusion that in mouth breathing cases there is kept up a mild, almost unnoticed chronic inflammation of the larynx which becomes aggravated under the influence of exposure to cold or irritation from dust. In children with adenoids an almost constant “cold” in the head exists during the winter months.

The adenoid operation, though performed by a limited number of surgeons in different parts of the world, did not come into general use until a few years ago. Both parents and physicians recognize now that mouth breathing is a condition resulting from disease, that it is not a habit and that a child in a normal condition will not breathe through its mouth.  . .



I don’t remember Grandma being ill very often during the winter of 1913-14. (She had more colds the previous winter.) I wonder why she decided to have her tonsils removed.

64 thoughts on “Tonsillectomies a Hundred Years Ago

    1. It does seem like a really long day for her. It’s hard to picture having to take the train in both directions–with a tonsillectomy in the middle. I’m surprised they didn’t keep her in the hospital (or doctor’s office) longer to watch her and make sure that everything was going to be okay.

    1. It does seem odd that she needed to take the awful physic for a tonsillectomy. They must have had very different ideas about how to prep for surgery back then.

    1. Well . . . I don’t think it would be a fun day for me. . .but she did seem to think that the train trip to a new city was interesting.

  1. I have always heard from people that it was just a big thing to have your tonsils removed then. I know at least that my grandfather and his 2 siblings all had theirs removed, and he told me that is was just the normal thing to get them removed, whether you truly needed it or not! A friend of mine just got hers removed, and the recovery was at least a week long in before she could even eat.

    1. I think that it was a really common operation back then. . and that people thought that it would cure a lot of different ailments and problems. The woman who cuts my hair got her tonsils out a couple months ago. I think that she took two weeks off work (though, of course, talking is a big part of her job–so she may have needed longer to recuperate than most people.)

    1. Thanks for sharing the link. Somehow I missed that post.

      Amazing. . . and a little scary. It’s hard to imagine how they used to do surgery in homes.

  2. Tonsillectomies definitely aren’t done now as often as they were years ago. I still have my tonsils, but my son’s were so large, they (and his adenoids) were removed when he was 5.

    1. It seems like doctors more carefully consider whether someone needs their tonsils out now than what they did years ago. My tonsils were taken out when I was a child.

  3. I was very surprised when I came to your post today and saw how much Grandma wrote. I think the experience was very eventful for her and resulted in paragraphs. I wonder if she’ll get a get well card or flowers from a certain someone.

    1. All of the events of the day did make a big impression on her. I’ve actually wondered if she wrote this entry the following day–since the day was so eventful and she couldn’t have been feeling very good.

  4. Interesting, how quickly she was released! All this must have been quite the experience for her!

    When I was growing up, it was still ‘trendy’ to have a tonsillectomy, but I still have mine 🙂

    1. You’d think that there would have been a risk of bleeding, and that they would have wanted to watch her for longer after the surgery.

  5. I suffer from recurrent tonsillitis – have done since I was a kid and the doctors never suggested having them removed when I was a child (now wishing they did as it’s the bane of my life!) but my mother had hers out in the 1950s, was in hospital for a few days but it turned out she actually had TB of the neck glands which was making her ill so she had to go back and have them removed on one side. My poor mother had a bad time as the anaesthetic didn’t work properly, so while she couldn’t move or talk, she could feel all that they were doing to her. She hates going to hospital with a passion and I don’t blame her!
    It is interesting that she was sent home so quickly though, especially for that era!

      1. Yeah it was pretty awful, she missed months of school because of it. Then when I had my TB vaccination as a teenager I had quite a bad reaction to it.

  6. What an eventful post today! The train ride sounds nice, but afterwards I am sure she just wanted to be home. Hope someone made a bucketful of homemade ice cream for her! I never had my tonsils out, and envied all the ice cream one was allowed to eat 🙂 (BTW, is that a Pennsylvania Dutch expression: “had my tonsils out”? Do other people say “had them taken out” instead? I catch myself all these years later with little expressions that come from my childhood near Lancaster County).

    1. I don’t know. “Had my tonsils out” might be a Pennsylvania Dutch expression. It sounds like the right way to say it to me–but sometimes I’m totally unaware that a phrase I’m using is a Pennsylvania Dutch expression until someone expresses surprise at the way I worded something.

    1. You did! I was amazed that you guessed it correctly–and thought about commenting on it last night, but then decided to let you wait until today to find out. 🙂

  7. I remember a classmate having her tonsils removed–and getting to eat ice cream. She didn’t seem all that happy about it, though!

  8. I had y tonsils removed in the hospital. I don’t remember being there a long time afterwards but overnight, I guess. My mother had her tonsils out in the doctors office. I never asked if she was put to sleep or anything. ugh!

  9. I had my tonsils out when I was 6 – at a doctor’s home in his upstairs surgery – with ether. Very frightening but there was a lot of ice cream in the recovery period. I went home the same day as soon as the ether wore off. Poor Helena. She may have a lot to say in the coming days.

  10. what a day indeed – I can’t imagine going to a doctors office to have any type of surgery or procedure like that done. I bet it hurt as no get out. A few years ago we took one of the fall train rides and although we did not go as far as Watsontown we took the same route Helena probably took and it is a beautiful ride and I am sure she enjoyed the scenery – at least on the way down, even in the bleakness of being in-between winter and spring.

    1. The train ride sounds wonderful. I hadn’t realized that it was still possible to take train rides through the mountains near Williamsport.

  11. Reading that excerpt gave me pause. I’ve been coughing none stop since last September and have had a battery of tests. They can’t diagnose it yet. I’m going to talk to my Dr about Tonsils. Sounds like a big event for your Grandma. That was a big entry.

  12. It seems to be generally unknown that the epidemics of paralytic polio occurred because of the medical fashion of removing tonsils. Tonsils keep the virus from ascending to the bulbar region of the brain stem, but from early in the 20th century doctors removed tonsils without reason. This connection was suspected by the 1930s and positively identified by the 1950s, and doctors stopped the practice. This is why there’s a drop in paralytic polio just before the vaccine was available. It’s interesting to read just how casual they were about the operation, too.

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