My Grandfather’s Quest for Sulfa

I didn’t know my grandfathers as well as my grandmothers. Maybe it’s natural for a girl to spend more time with her grandmothers. Maybe it’s because both my grandmothers had more forceful personalities than their husbands, my grandfathers.

My maternal grandfather died when I was not quite ten, but I had lived with my maternal grandparents for a few months as a toddler, and I visited those grandparents often. So I knew him as the dour businessman I have described before.

My paternal grandfather and my brother -- note the footie pajamas (though these are pink, so they may be hand-me-downs from my sister)

My paternal grandfather and my brother — note the footie pajamas (though these are pink, so they may be hand-me-downs from my sister)

My paternal grandfather didn’t die until I was in college, but he was probably the grandparent I knew the least. According to my father, his dad was a born salesman and marketer. I remember him being a traveling salesman for Carter’s and other children’s products, and we were always well supplied with footie pajamas in my youth. I knew my grandfather had a good sense of humor, or at least he teased us frequently.

But I don’t know many stories about him as a child or young man, so I enjoyed hearing a story from my father a few years ago—a story I had never heard before.

From birth until about age six, my father lived with his parents and younger sister in the small town of Pratt, Kansas, where my grandfather managed the downtown Woolworth’s store. In 1938, when he was five, my father developed rheumatic fever (which is caused by a strep infection), rickets (caused by vitamin deficiencies), and pneumonia in both lungs—all at the same time. He was hospitalized, and the doctors were not encouraging about my father’s chances.

His father—my paternal grandfather—did not accept the doctors’ opinion. “Isn’t there anything you can do?” he asked them angrily.

“Well, there’s a doctor in Wichita who’s doing some tests with a new drug.”

My grandfather drove the 80 miles to Wichita to get the drug.

And that’s how my father came to be the second person in Kansas to take sulfa.

0198529171.sulfonamide.1Bayer AG had started experimenting with sulfa in 1932, and sulfa quickly became a miracle drug, stopping many bacterial infections cold. The drug was the first medicine to deal effectively with strep, and presumably wiped out both my father’s rheumatic fever and the pneumonia.

But my father may have been lucky yet again. Not all of the early sulfa medications were safe. In 1937, over 100 people were poisoned with a sulfa derivative that contained the same chemical as anti-freeze. The problem was first discovered in Tulsa, Oklahoma, although the fatal drug was sold across the nation and took much detective work to track down. That disaster led to adoption of the federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act in 1938.

Maybe it’s a good thing Pratt was closer to Wichita than to Tulsa.

My personal experience with sulfa drugs was not as pleasant as my father’s. I took a sulfa medication when I was in law school, and I broke out in huge hives all over my body. I itched so much that I was willing to live on antihistamines for several days until the sulfa was out of my system.

My law school classes could wait.

I haven’t touched the stuff since.

In fact, even eating foods preserved with sulfites these days make my skin crawl. I’m told that sulfa allergies and sulfite allergies are different things, but they make me feel the same.

Nevertheless, despite my personal aversion to sulfa, it is quite possible that I am here today because my grandfather insisted on getting the miracle medicine for his son almost 75 years ago. So I must be grateful for sulfa drugs and for a father’s tenacity in curing his child.

What stories do you have of heroes in your family?

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  1. Great story! The rickets are an interesting problem…aren’t those caused by Vitamin D deficiencies, which means not enough sun? That’s an unusual ailment for a little boy in Kansas.

    Sulfa drugs seem to be one of those treatments that your body either likes or really doesn’t like. I have had the hives experience, too. FYI, my husband (a science teacher) says that the kids who are allergic to sulfa drugs have to stay away from any of the experiments that involve sulfa compounds because they will react to airborne particles.

    • Diana,
      Yes, rickets are caused by a lack of calcium and vitamin D.
      Interesting information on the sulfa compounds and science experiments. I guess my chemistry class never dealt with sulfa!
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. My husband had a serious burn from the exhaust pipe of his motorcycle this summer, and at one point during the months of treatment he was prescribed a tube of sulfa-something-or-other cream for both the burn site and a skin graft donor site. It took him awhile to link his sudden body-wide itching to that cream, but I think he’d say it was one of the most miserable weeks of his life. Thank goodness your father didn’t have the same experience!

  3. Very interesting, Theresa. I too have an allergy to Sulfa. My reaction was very frightening, my throat felt like it was swelling shut and my skin was crawling. I’m glad it helped your father!

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