Traumatic childhood of the richest little girl in the world

July 21, 2011 at 3:10 am (Alice's Childhood, PD Armour and Family) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Alice’s cousin, Lolita Armour, was Alice’s best friend although she was several years older. Named after her mother, she was a shining example of what the socially aware young heiress should be, although her wealth seemed to attract bizarre newspaper coverage.

Born premature and crippled, it was feared she would die, as was the fate of most premature babies at the time. The Armours threw the full weight of their fortune behind her and purchased the services of a wet nurse, a new mother who was lured away from her own child to nurse Lolita instead. The efforts worked and against the odds Lolita survived, although occasional newspaper articles would dog her life claiming that the natural child of her wet nurse had been adopted out and her mother had never seen her again. After the drama and difficulties of Lolita’s birth, the Armours had no more children.

Lolita’s problems were not over. She had been born with congenital hip dysplasia (dislocation) and the newspapers avidly followed as her powerful father threw his wealth and determination into finding a cure. The Armours were a wealthy and powerful family and readers were fascinated to read of their woes.

In the early 1900s hip dysplasia condemned its sufferer to the life of a cripple, unable to stand or move unaided. Internationally-renowned Viennese surgeon Professor Albert Lorenz claimed to be able to effect a complete cure in such cases – despite his controversial survival of the fittest views. (He allegedly claimed that curing such children did humanity a disservice by saving children who would normally be “weeded out”.) J Ogden Armour travelled to Vienna to consult with him. Professor Lorenz was persuaded to come to America to treat Lolita with his famous bloodless surgery for the price of $100,000 USD and all expenses paid for himself and his staff.

Professor Lorenz arrived one night during in a severe storm and approached a local house seeking shelter only to be turned away. When he went the next morning to his first appointment with the Armours he discovered it had been them who had turned him away the night before. Despite their immense wealth and the accusations of shoddy business practices, the Armours were socially aware and would have been appalled at such a gaffe. One can only imagine their embarrassment. As prominently wealthy people, particularly with so many people in their employ who might bear a grudge against them, it would have been highly unlikely that they would have let a stranger into their house. Some years later their guard was let down and the house was robbed, Mrs Armour bashed by the intruders.

Professor Lorenz treated children with deformities such as Lolita’s with a revolutionary new technique that has saved millions from the life of a cripple. His contribution to humanity and to the field of medicine is considerable and his so-called bloodless surgery technique is still largely the treatment in use today.

The bloodless surgery technique involved Lolita being anaesthetised on the kitchen table then having her hips manipulated using weights and straps until they forced the ball of the thigh bone into the hip socket with a click. Her hips were then immobilised in a plaster cast for half a year. The pain involved in the manipulation would have been minimal due to the anaesthetic and immediate immobilisation. However the discomfort in wearing a hot, itchy and smelly plaster cast for six months would have been distressing for a young child such as Lolita, who may not have fully understood why this was happening to her. There would have been regular cast changes as she grew ā€“ the awful noise and jerking as the old cast was cut from her body, the smell of weeks of fetid sweat released from inside the cast, then being held down in position as the wet plaster reapplied, heating up until it felt like it would burn her skin as it dried. This cannot have been a pleasant time for her but Lolita suffered uncomplainingly.

Professor Lorenz’s visit to cure Lolita paid off for American medicine and other children with the same deformities. While he was in America for the Armours he also treated many poor children free of charge and spoke to the Orthopaedic Society, hence spreading this revolutionary approach that remains in essence the treatment successfully used today.

Despite a New York Times article declaring the operation a complete success, Lolita’s health remained precarious. She needed to travel several times to Vienna for adjustments and reviews. However, often she was too unwell to make such a long voyage, and Professor Lorenz would travelled to Chicago to review her progress. Eighteen months after the operation she was taken to Vienna for Professor Lorenz to teach her how to walk. Lolita’s arrival back in America age 8, walking down the gangplank unaided hit the newspaper headlines, as did dancing lessons age 11. By her teenage years she was an accomplished sportswoman and equestrian, a miracle considering her poor start in life. (Lolita wore calipers and used a wheelchair as an elderly lady so while the treatment was not wholly successful, it did save her ā€“ and many others – from the life of a cripple.)

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