Medical Mysteries in History ?

Nurses General Nursing


Hi everyone,

I have a question for ya.

My mother is somewhat of a history buff and she recently took a tour through an old mansion that was once owned by one of the more prominant families in our area. I don't know if anyone outside of Pittsburgh would recognize the name, but it was the Frick Family Home.

Anyway, the home is a historical landmark now and when she got home she started looking up information on the history of the family. The people that lived in the home where Mr. and Mrs. Frick, their two daughters, the oldest who died at age 4.

There wasn't a whole lot written about the eldest daughter except that she was always very weak/ill. Then, my mum found an article about why the daughter was so sick. The story said that at age 2 the daughter swallowed a pin and that for the next two years she was very ill with stomach ailments, couldn't eat, wouldn't eat at times, weak, tired, abdominal pain. At age 4 she finally died of peritonitis presumably caused by the pin. For the last month she could not eat a thing.

So, my mum (and I) want to know if you can really live for 2 years with peritonitis til it gets to the point that it finally kills you or is this story a little "out there" and this reporters speculations have no medical basis. I mean, I know peritonitis is serious but for 2 years?

My mum is so intrigued by this because she said the family suffered a huge amount of guilt over the daughters death. They even had portraits hung around the house of what the daughter may have looked like had she grown up.

Anyway, any thoughts you have on this would be very interesting.



6,011 Posts


I think anything is possible. She perhaps had a walled off abscess that finally eroded ....maybe? What era was this...before x rays?

Ahhh a little Google brings the story out.

Sanger believes Frick regretted losing his softer side but had no way to regain these qualities in an era before psychoanalysis. And it was not that Martha, who died shortly before age 6, was more than a sweet child. But she became the lifelong screen on which her father projected his softer side. Martha swallowed a straight pin in Paris in 1887 and began suffering abdominal pain. Her red curls and eyebrows fell off, and two years later the pin was discovered protruding through her side. Her lingering death was caused by peritonitis that Frick's homeopathic doctors were unable to correct.

Katnip, RN

2,904 Posts

I've heard of the Fricks. My husband is from Scottdale and there's a Frick museum there. Or used to be.

As for the other part, I don't know, but it must have been really miserable for the little one.


6,011 Posts


Yet more Google.

April 2, 1999

Henry Clay Frick was a ruthless and extremely successful steel tycoon in the late 1800's and early 1900's. The death of his daughter Martha in 1891 would cause him the greatest pain he ever suffered. Martha was born a happy and healthy child on August 5, 1885. She flourished until she was two. Then she took ill, and despite the best possible medical care, her condition became chronic. No one knew what the cause might be until one day, two years later, her nurse noticed a small wound on the child's right side that was oozing pus. She wiped it away and was horrified to find a pin emerging from the wound. Apparently Martha had swallowed it just before she took ill, and for two years it had slowly worked its way through her body, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. A doctor cleaned and dressed the wound, but aseptic procedures were in their infancy then, and the infection festered for another two years. Martha slowly and inexorably went from bad to worse. She was in nearly contant pain, her hair fell out, and she lost weight. Finally, in the summer of 1891, the wound opened again, and pus poured out. The nurse, named Annie, called for Frick. He took one look and said in desperation, "Annie, what shall I do? What shall I do?" But there was nothing to be done, given the medical science of the day. A few hours later the child died, leaving a hole in Frick's heart that would never be filled. In his personal conduct a typical Victorian male, Frick rarely spoke of her afterward, except that on her birthday he would say at the dinner table that Martha would have been so many years old that day. But when a Pittsburgh bank that catered to children's accounts failed, Frick sent checks to each of the young depositors to make up their lost money. Each check had Martha's image engraved on it.


121 Posts

If I'm not mistaken pins were made from lead in that era.

Sounds like lead poisioning symptoms as well as peritonitis.


951 Posts

Specializes in Hospice, Critical Care.

Wow. Quite a story. I've been to the Frick Museum (years ago) but never heard this story. Thanks for posting.


131 Posts

I am fascinated by medical history stories, especially Victorian England and American Civil War eras. There is a museum of Civil War Medicine in Maryland, I think its in or near Frederick that I want to visit one day. Who knows what future generations will say about our "state of the art" treatments of 2003?


1,326 Posts

Hi everyone,

Thanks so much for your input. I can't believe you found so much info. I was looking and looking but couldn't find too much on the daughter.

I hadn't even thought about the possibility of lead poisoning.

I will send this to my mum.

PS, Liann, since you live in PA have you ever caught any shows on the PCNC (?) station? It's the public Pennsylvania broadcasts of the farm show, council meetings, etc. Anyway, in the spring and summer when they viceo tape the re-enactments at Gettsyburg, etc. and they usually follow a tour of how doctors and nurses handled the injured soldiers. Talk about some scarey stuff!


131 Posts

I am going to Gettysburg in June. Cant wait to dig into all that history! I have not seen the PCNC bit, but I will look for it!!

I have toured Clayton which is the Frick family home in Pittsburghs Point Breeze section. Quite a sight, esp at Christmas time. They also have a Car and Carriage museum and an art gallery there, as well as a cafe and shop. Well worth the trip!

Of course the tour does not mention the business practices of Henry Clay Frick or his involvement in the Homestead Strike. Where did all his wealth come from? Hmmmm

It is a sad story about his daughter Martha. Tragedy can strike any family.


1,326 Posts

Hi Liann,

If you are going to Gettysburg I certainly hope you get to see some re-enactments and such. Keep your eyes open for the one about the field doctors and nurses. When I saw it on T.V. is was really interesting. They had a gentlemen dressed as a "period" doctor and they had a wounded soldier and the doc. was giving a presentation on the types of injuries that they would have seen and how they would have treated them. He had an old fasioned doctors bag and went through it describing what each tool was used for. I don't know how any of those men made it. Every tool was huge and made of heavy iron, steal, lead they must have weighed a ton. Really makes you thankful of our modern medicine!

The City Museum in Memphis, TN (known as the Pink Palace) has a medical section, mostly focusing on flu epidemic of early 1900's. It also depicts the contributions of early black physicians and nurses in the area.

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