When I was attending the Ulverstone primary school in Tasmania in the mid 1950s, a responsible monitor (rarely me!) would dole out tiny white goitre tablets. I don’t think we kids gave this a second thought as we gulped them down with our school milk. It was only when I began researching the life of Hobart surgeon Dr Victor Ratten that the full story of the State’s issue with thyroid problems hit home.
The illustration below was published in the tabloid newspaper Smith’s Weekly, on July 26 1924. The copy was just as lurid, appearing under the headline NIGHTMARE NECKS.
Note the reference to New Norfolk. The article stated that in 1921 the Tasmanian Department of Public Health made enlarged goitre (a problem of the thyroid gland) a notifiable disease.
Over a 12 month period there were 600 new cases, 239 from the New Norfolk area. It appeared that the Derwent and Huon valleys were the worst affected, The south of the State had a higher prevalence than the north, and women were affected more than men. Problems associated with an enlarged goitre were said to include delayed mental development.. and at worst (if untreated), ‘cretinism’.
It was further claimed that other people had too much thyroid;
In this case the gland is healthy but overgrown. As a result the possessor becomes a nervous invalid with a racing heart and bulging eyes……which is really the direct opposite to ordinary goitre, in which the gland is swollen but defective.
Why not change glands betwixt ‘under’ and ‘over’ thyroided people?
A Tasmanian surgeon got the bright idea …..Dr Ratten of Hobart Hospital who recently completed his thousandth operation for removal of goitre …..a fact which emphasises the increasing spread of the disease in goitrous areas.
Dr Ratten took a female cretin (apparently a hopeless case) and grafted a portion of an ‘exophthalmic’ (excessively functioning) thyroid goitre from another patient into her body. The effect was immediately satisfactory. Today the patient is well. strong and sane. The surgeon has recreated her soul.
Re-created her soul? Good grief! In other reports of this case it was claimed that Dr Ratten’s ‘miracle’ operation had saved the patient from being admitted to a mental asylum. As you can from the excerpt below, the story made its way around the country.
Barrier Miner (Broken Hill) April 4 1921 Considerable interest has been aroused by the announcement of an important medical experiment by Dr, Ratten, Surgeon Superintendent of the Hobart General Hospital. About a month ago Dr. Ratten transplanted a gland from one woman to another who was suffering from loss of reason, with the result that the patient at once became normal, and has remained so ever since…..Asked whether the woman from whom the gland was taken was alive or dead at the time, Dr. Ratten declined to say. It is believed however, that the woman had just died. Four other doctors examined the patient prior to the experiment, and decided that if an operation could do her no good she would have to go to the metal diseases hospital.
It was said that eventually, half the women in Hobart wore what became known as The Ratten Smile’
By the early 1920s it was known that the problem was a lack of the mineral iodine in the soil in those ‘goitrous belts’. However, it was decades before preventative measures were introduced. This delay caused so much misery.
It was not until 1950 that the necks of Tasmanian primary school children were checked annually for signs of goitre. Depending on what the nurse found, one or two iodine tablets were issued every week.
In my memory the tablets were very bitter, but they seemed to have a strange appeal for many kids. Since first publishing this article, ex tablet monitors have confessed to eating more than their rightful share. Other people have confessed to downing their entire summer holiday supply on the way home from school. For goodness sake, kiddies!
The practice of doling out pills was phased out from 1966, when iodine was added to bread and table salt. Just as well, given the chronic abuse of them.
Well, I must say I’m very pleased I swallowed those little white tablets at primary school and escaped The Ratten Smile.
Did you know that iodine deficiency is an increasing problem in Australia? Apparently many people don’t bother to buy iodised salt, but there is no good reason not to. Those fancy rock salt products are all very well, but good health is more important.