Sunday, October 28, 2018

Le Mesurier's Hammock - An Early Scoliosis Treatment

Kids have unique gifts and abilities; some are smart, others have artistic ability, and last but certainly not least, some  are preternaturally athletic. I could not lay claim to any of these wonderful  attributes, but I did posses the gift, if you could call it that, of unusual joint flexibility. I could take my heel and twist it at an acute angle and tuck it behind my head. My favorite move was performed from a seated position and involved taking my right foot and lifting it above my straightened left leg while pulling it toward my body. Why did I enjoy such foolishness? I guess the answer was similar to the reason climbers give when they ascend Mount Everest - "Because it's there."

My Mom, a long suffering nurse from the Greatest Generation  did not appreciate my skills as a junior contortionist. Just when I had finished twisting myself up like a pretzel, she would holler, "Stop that tomfoolery before I take you to the hospital and string you up in a Le Mesurier's  Hammock. Do you want curvature of the spine?"  Her admonishment did little to curtail my extremity entanglement and circumvolition  activities, but it did whet my curiousity about that hammock thing threat. "How bad can that be?"  Le Mesurier's Hammock conjured up restful, peaceful experience. My next order of business was an investigation into the how and whys of the hammock threat. This could prove interesting.

Like me, my Mom retained her old nursing school textbooks and class notes which were carefully archived  heaped in a basement corner. One day while perusing the hodge-podge collection of nursing texts a serious looking black bound tome called out to me.  Nursing of Children  was the no-nonsense title and the table of contents listed topics like Diseases of the Glands, Spasmophilia, Hordeolum of the Eye, and Early Correction and Fusion in the Treatment of Scoliosis.

During my quest for hammock enlightenment I happened upon a chapter  about bedsores. This little tidbit of medical horror instilled a sleep disorder that persisted well into adolescence. In a mood of wonderment and sheer terror my eyes popped at the images of patients with oozing gaping wounds on their lateral hips and shoulders sustained by simply lying in bed. How could this be?  I made a note to myself to awaken q2 hours to check myself for these loathsome lesions. A peaceful night's sleep was gone forever because visions of bedsores danced in my head. Some things never change, now it's a pain in the prostate that awakens me q2 hours for that lonely journey to the can.

Finally a chapter in the orthopedic section about a condition known as spinal scoliosis revealed the LeMesurier's Hammock treatment. This was another one of those medical misadventures treatments that involve harnessing the spinning earth's gravitational pull. Weighted speculums that are ram rodded in various orifices to gain exposure during surgery are a twisted, devious use of gravity  but the LeMesurier's hammock use of this force  was far more grotesque.

When one views the history of treatment of pathological spinal curvature it is apparent that crude and brutal measures rule the roost. Lemesurier's Hammock involved placing the patient in an orthopedic bed that had risers on each corner connected via an overhead frame matching the dimensions  of the bed. These steel framed monstrosities were frightening in their own right but add traction pulleys and assorted doodads for limb fixation and they resembled medieval racks that could dish out unthinkable tortures. YIKES and double YIKES.

A scoliosis patient in position just prior to application of the hammock.
The victim's scoliosis patient's ankles  wrists were liberally padded and heavy leather cuffs are applied and connected by traction cord to pulleys on the corners of the ortho bed. The extremities begin their audacious ascent until the patient is suspended so the apex of the spinal curve is straightened. After a couple of days hanging around over the net, a body cast is applied and a large window cut to expose the operative site. A surgical spinal fusion is the final step in this uplifting treatment.

Helpful tips from this vintage nursing text advise that the leather cuffs can be sourced from the psychiatric ward and the hammock portion can be constructed from ordinary fishnet. The reference to the psychiatric ward  probably foretold impending problems. Patients subjected to 4 point suspension over a surplus fishing net are likely to sustain psychotic ego fragmentation and the nursing staff subject to PTSD. Perhaps a package deal is in order with the whole the whole kit and caboodle; patient, nurses, and leather restraint cuffs  winding up back on the psych floor.

Nurses are stuck in the quicksand of existing knowledge and looking back it's shocking to realize the barbarity of period treatments like LeMesurier's Hammock. It's amazing what patient's will submit to when the treatment is ordered by paternalistic  physicians attired in immaculate white lab coats uttering trite expressions such as, "It's all for your own good." Old school nurses in there all white uniforms and caps were a commanding presence too. It would have been tough to say "no" to authority figures like that and probably wouldn't have stopped their ministrations if you did.


  1. Indeed. I'm passing this one off as my Halloween post.

  2. So who I wonder was LeMesurier, after whom this horrifying (!!!) device was apparently named - I presume he/she was a particularly vindictive psychopath? (Are there grades of psychopathy?)

    I kid you not, this looks just like an instrument of torture I saw once long ago in the basement of a castle in England (they used put people in tiny cages just big enough to curl up in, fastened to the ceiling - imagine the cramps...) Now I'm probably going to have nightmares. I should never read your blog in the evening before bed...

    Your time spent in Amish country appears to have done you good OFRN - I think. Cheers, Sue.

  3. I Googled LeMesurier's Hammock and came up empty, but there was mention of a Canadian Pediatric surgeon with the same name who devised a unique method of cleft lip repair. The time frame for the hammock treatment and lip repair was from the same era; he must have been a surgeon of many skills. I just hope the cleft lip repair did not involve suspension of the hapless patient.

    Amish country was very peaceful. My next post will not be so gruesome. My only excuse is that it's Halloween.


    Here's a fascinating article I found OFRN - look up Scoliosis, My Friend on the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website (under Moving Stories, if the link doesn't work). A Chicago nurse describes all these treatments from the 1940s in detail. Happy Halloween, Sue.

  5. Thanks, Sue, your information gathering skills are better than a reference librarian's. The 1940's were my Mom's heydays as a nurse. I remember her orthopedic treatment nightmare stories all too well. The only thing worse were her tales about iron lungs. Nurses from this era were a tough and hardened group. In nursing school we referred them affectionately, of course, as "hard core."

    1. Did you manage to find the story OFRN? You trained in Chicago I think you said so I thought you might find it interesting as she mentions several hospitals there. What a positive attitude she had to everything she went through - and then became a nurse herself!

      Yes the ones that trained us were pretty hardened - low wages and hard work, it was a tough job. I understand better now I'm older how tough it must have been for the older Sisters who trained us, never enough money for their own home, always living in at the hospital and having to do heavy work into their fifties and sixties - when you're young you don't understand! I just thought they were a lot of old battle-axes.

      If you didn't find the article I found the photos that led to it when I typed in Scoliosis My Friend into Google Images. Cheers again Sue.

  6. The author of the My Friend Scoliosis book actually grew up in the same neighborhood that I lived while in nursing school (Lake View). The hospital where I trained was smack dab in the middle of Lakeview. Our pediatric ward treated mainly communicable diseases and childhood cancers. There were few treatments for leukemia and the end result was so many heartbreaking cases. Decades ago the pediatric hospital at The University of Chicago treated most all the ortho cases along with a Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children.

    The cover image on that "Friend" book is the stuff nightmares are made of. How in the world did patients use the bedpan when hung in mid air. It's a scary thought!

    1. I thought you might know some of those places she mentions OFRN but you even grew up in the same area! She seemed to find the Shriners Hospital excellent although I think parents were permitted to visit only once per week (I haven't gone back to the article to check) - I hated Paediatrics as parents were restricted to one brief afternoon visit daily and the poor kids would sit rocking themselves or banging their heads against the cot rails - I found it too distressing. She sounded very stoic.

      That's a good point about the bedpan - yikes!

      See how your blog can lead on to interesting things! Sue