Need Info on Leukemia

Don’t panic, I don’t HAVE it—I am writing a bio of a woman who died of leukemia in 1959.

I am trying to find information on what causes it, the symptoms, and how it was treated (here’s the kicker) in the 1950s, not now. I will do some online book-searches to see if I can find a 1950s medical text, but I was wondering if any of you know any doctors who practiced back then or are familiar with medical history.

I hesitate to log onto a leukemia support site, as these people have better things to do than chat with curious authors, and might feel I am trivializing their illness. "Sorry you’re dying—say, can I ask you . . . "


Hey Eve.

The book I’m writing right now deals with a man with Acute Lymphocitic Leukemia. (It’s set in present day)

but I would urge you to go to support rooms. I researched for MONTHS, and I found that people love to tell their stories, about transplants, chemo…anything. They talk about it. When it gets too much, they won’t.

I went to and found a lot of stuff that lead me to other sites and other people.

I told them right off that I was a writer…and that I was writing a book about THEIR illness…and they really wanted to talk about it.


I did an PubMed search for leukemia AND history AND treatment AND historical article[pt] which pulls up historical article publication types only. This yielded 122 hits. If you have a medical library nearby, here are possibly some good articles :

The first 4 are from one issue of a journal Med Pediatr Oncol (probably Medical and Pediatric Oncology)

Sylvester R. “The dawn of chemotherapy. Further reflections.” Med Pediatr Oncol. 1999 Oct;33(4):408.

Ravindranath Y. “Forty-five-year follow-up of a childhood leukemia survivor: serendipity or karma?” Med Pediatr Oncol. 1999 Oct;33(4):409-10.

Mercer RD. “The dawn of chemotherapy. The team.” Med Pediatr Oncol. 1999 Oct;33(4):408-9.

Wolff JA. “Chronicle: First light on the horizon: the dawn of chemotherapy.” Med Pediatr Oncol. 1999 Oct;33(4):405-7.

Thomas ED. “A history of haemopoietic cell transplantation.” Br J Haematol. 1999 May;105(2):330-9.

Freireich EJ. “Four decades of therapy for AML.” Leukemia. 1998 Sep;12 Suppl 1:S54-6.

Bernard J. “History of promyelocytic leukaemia.” Leukemia. 1994;8 Suppl 2:S1-5.

Piller G. “The history of leukemia: a personal perspective.” Blood Cells. 1993;19(3):521-9; discussion 530-5.

Hope this helps.

Do you know how long the person was sick before dying? My best friend died of acute leukemia–he had bruises on his arms and legs he noticed on a Monday, went into a coma in a couple of days and died Friday. I think bruises are common for leukemia in general, but symptom may differ between leukemia and acute leukemia… is a good summary of the causes of leukemia and has a link to Medical Info searches at the top.

Thanks, all—I will look up those sites. I found a 1964 book on leukemia online which I think I’ll order (damn, those old medical books are expensive!).

Gigi—She was diagnosed early in 1957 and died late in 1959 at the age of 31; she had myeloid leukemia, and was probably ill for a year before her diagnosis.

Eve, are you at liberty to say who your subject is? I assume she’s famous or there wouldn’t be interest in a biography.

What are average five-year survival rates for leukemia these days? ISTR hearing leukemia is one of the great cancer treatment success stories of the past thirty years.

(I know this info is probably at the site gigi referenced, but I can’t bring myself to click on it. Sorry; call it whistling through a graveyard if you must, but it makes me skittish.)

Five—It’s Kay Kendall, the British comic actress. It’ll be out next year, assuming I can get off my duff and finish it (I don’t so much suffer from “writer’s block” as from “sheer laziness”).

Have you tried to find out the names
of the doctors who treated her or
where she was treated? They might
give you some more pertinent info
rather than general info about how
leukemia was treated in the 50’s

I did speak to the son of her main doctor in NY, but he has no info on the history of treatment. I’ll see if that 1964 book on leukemia is of any use.

I believe there was an episode of MAS*H that had a soldier die of leukemia. I recall them discussing treatments, and some kind of tear-jerky Alan Alda moment where there was some discussion about “In ten years, we may be able to do X.”

That’s about as much as I know about leukemia in the 1950’s.

Oh, and if you ever need legal advice, I’ve watched just about every Perry Mason.

Chemotherapy would have been in its infancy in 1959. There are 4 main kinds - acute myelogenous (AML), chronic myelogenous (CML), acute lymphocytic (ALL), and chronic lymphocytic (CLL). AML is the most likely kind to affect young or middle-aged adults. These terms may help you in your search.

I am guessing you are more interested in the patient’s perspective of leukemia and treatment than scientific information, so I would recommend going to support group sites, and inquiring about survivor groups. is a great place to find information about many different disorders. In addition to a bulletin board for people with a disorder, family members, and the curious, they also have links to information sites.

I don’t know where you live, but if there is a medical school nearby, they may have a medical history section that could help you, or you might check with their Hematology/Oncology service for physicians, active or retired, who might have practiced then.

Good Luck!

The following site is still under construction however they do have records going back to 1950 on cancer treatment,

There is a contact section you could try, and a very good links section.
Publicity of any sort for these organisations is good, so they will often be helpful.

You better get going with the writing, as I am fairly certain I have seen it advertised as being published in 2002 (probably while I was looking up Jean Harlow.)
By the way puns like that in book titles should be outlawed. I have absolutly no right to rembember a publication notice on a subject I was not looking at days latter.

You better get going with the writing, as I am fairly certain I have seen it advertised as being published in 2002 (probably while I was looking up Jean Harlow.)
By the way puns like that in book titles should be outlawed. I have absolutely no right to remember, days latter a publication notice on a subject I was not looking at.

Thanks for the site, Britt, it looks very helpful. And yes indeedy, I am under Deadline Panic—gotta get the book done by the end of this year!

“By the way puns like that in book titles should be outlawed.”

—??? What book title?

The title of the forth-coming book by Eve Golden was advertised as "Oh Kay!” Kansas University Press was publishing it, if I remember correctly. It was the title that finally triggered the publication date flooding back, into what passes for my mind.

Would the NYPL (or Columbia or NYSU or some place) have ancient copies of the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, or (more to your need) Lancet?