Medical privacy, 1950 style

by Mike

Without really working in a medical field, I still hear a lot about medical privacy and HIPAA. And how any public presentation of patient information needs to be anonymized, any identifying details need to be removed, any irrelevant personal details need to be removed, populations need to be profiled rather than individuals, and generally all publications about human patients must run through a battery of administrators to make sure everything is in compliance with federal rules, state rules, institutional rules, the institutional rules of other institutions that collaborated with us, and heaven knows what else.

Not so long ago, the standards were different. Today we’ll look at a 1950 article on “Primary Cutaneous Cryptococcosis” from Archives of Dermatology and Syphilology (later renamed Archives of Dermatology, and then JAMA Dermatology). An actual doctor could explain what parts of this article would be scrubbed now, and what parts are still OK. I don’t really know. But what struck me was that nearly all the personal details seem unrelated to the actual topic of the article. Meanwhile, author William M. Gandy, M.D. points out that “family history was irrelevant”. Indeed, it would be even more irrelevant to point out the patient’s mother’s alcoholism, or grandfather’s yaws and phossy jaw.


Information we can glean from the piece:

– “The patient had been under continuous observation and treatment at the Charity Hospital of New Orleans since July 2, 1945. Successive complaints brought her at one time or another to the attention of the medical, surgical, gynecologic and dermatologic services.”

– “She stated that she had been ‘anemic’ and afflicted with ‘enlarged glands’ since childhood. She had measles, mumps, chickenpox and scarlet fever in early life.”

– She was “first seen by us” (the dermatology clinic) on August 14, 1947, at age 29.

– She was white and a lifetime resident of New Orleans, Louisiana.

– At this time she was divorced with one child.

– That child was conceived in 1942 in Cleveland, Ohio, but born in New Orleans.

– For months after the birth of the child, she was given weekly X-ray treatments for “extensive” genital warts. The “Roentgen rays” did no good and she was then given podophyllin ointment, which led to “a severe burn followed by a slough of much of the vulva”.

– During 1942 she was diagnosed with Boeck‘s sarcoid.

– During 1947 she had stones removed from her right kidney.

– During 1947 she underwent a vulvectomy and a ureterotomy.

– The whole point of this paper, a cutaneous Cryptococcus infection on her face, was probably the least of her problems and had little to do with all this other stuff anyway.

– Very unusual for cryptococcosis, this infection was limited to a patch of skin and not found in the blood, cerebrospinal fluid, urine, sputum or mucosal swabs.

– 12 mice were injected with half a milliliter of a broth culture of her strain of Cryptococcus. 6 of the mice died within 12 days, and the remaining 6 died within 21 days.

– Between the end of 1947 and April 1949 she left Charity Hospital, married her second husband, and returned to Charity Hospital, this time the urology clinic, after developing a renal abscess and uremia. This was not a Cryptococcus infection.

– “Further physical and laboratory investigations were not possible at the time because of the patient’s uncooperative attitude and the severity of her illness.”

– Finally… here’s a picture of her face.


If you know this woman, you may be glad to know that she received a large amount of medical care free from top clinicians, as Charity Hospital was adjacent to the LSU Health Sciences Center. Was this care better than what would have been provided in 1736, when the hospital was founded? Of course! What kind of question is that? Or anyway, I think so, but I’m no historian.