Fun story from 1923. Newspapers around the United States reported daily on the health of the Fever Girl; a woman with the highest temperature ever recorded to that date. Would she live or die? Keep reading to find out more.
Original Podcast Air Date: April 18, 2014
I was jokingly telling my wife the other night that I wish I had been born at the turn of the twentieth century so I could have met an incredibly hot girl that I read about in the paper. Not only was she hot, she was sizzling hot.
In fact, if you had picked up just about any newspaper in the United States back in March of 1923 you would have read about the woman that the press nicknamed the “Fever Girl.” She was 30-year-old Evelyn Lyons and at the time she resided at 509 South Ninth Street in Escanaba, Michigan.
And just who was she really?
What made Evelyn famous was her unusual medical condition. As I mentioned she was incredibly hot, but not necessarily in the looks department. Instead, she had been suffering from an extremely high fever – one that maxed out the clinical thermometers typically used at the time at 110°F or 43.3°C. The amazing part of her story was that while most people would have suffered brain damage, organ damage, or have been killed by such a high fever, Miss Lyons was still conscious, maintained her full appetite, and was completely rational.
The story goes that she had initially caught the flu, which developed into full-blown pneumonia. For a period of about two-weeks, Evelyn had a fever of 107° F (41.7°C) and then in the four days prior to the story breaking in the news on March 4th of 1923, it had jumped to 114°F (45.6°C), which the doctors estimated by placing additional gradations on the thermometer.
Dr. Harry C. Defnet, who was the city health commissioner who had been placed in charge of her case told the press that Miss Lyons fever had baffled all of the doctors in Escanaba. He reported that Evelyn was being treated at home and that her mother Hannah Lyons was having a tough time keeping her in bed. At one point she had totally disappeared and neighbors frantically searched the neighborhood for her. They found Evelyn about an hour later dressed only in a nightgown lying in a snow bank in an alley near her home.
When asked what happened, she responded, “I was tired of staying in bed and wanted to cool off.”
Now I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I have even the slightest fever, I am shivering from the cold, there is absolutely no way that I would jump into a snow bank to cool off. This woman was clearly a medical oddity.
Needless to say, Evelyn was taken back indoors and her temperature was taken once again. And her fever was still at the very top of the scale. Incredible.
According to the various newspapers, doctors expressed concern as to what might happen if her fever subsided rapidly.
Some felt that the fever may have been “caused by a former tumor that was pressing up against the thermal centers of the brain.”
On March 6th, her fever rose even higher to a new record of 118° F (47.8°C), although this was only an estimation due to the limitations of the thermometers that were available. One thing that was certain was that when Dr. Defnet inserted his thermometer into her mouth, the mercury rose to the point where it popped open the glass tube. Now we’re really talking sizzling!
Yet, through all of this, Evelyn continued to lack the typical symptoms that accompany a high fever. She occasionally complained about a bit of pain, but that was about it.
Day-after-day the press followed her progress. Letters and telegrams arrived from all over the nation, some expressing their get-well wishes and others offering medical advice.
During an interview with a reporter, Evelyn remarked, “I wish you would thank through the Associated Press all of the people for me.” She added, “I am glad to have their comfort in my fight for victory and I would like to thank each one separately.” She further stated, “I know I will recover. I wish I could get outdoors, because I know I would be better off if I got out into the cold air. But I guess I will have to obey the physician as he undoubtedly knows what is best.”
On her 16th day with that high fever, both Dr. Defnet and Dr. Moll, who was the Secretary of the Delta County Medical Association at the time, signed statements to the Associated Press.
Dr. Moll’s statement read, “I found the temperature to be the maximum of a thermometer which I estimate at 114 or more. The patient is rational. The odd case is not exaggerated and is true to the letter.”
Another Escanaba physician, Dr. Snyder, visited her the next day and reported, “There can be no doubt of the correctness of previous temperature readings.”
It was now time to bring in the experts from the big city. The New York Times reported on March 19th that a couple of top-notch physicians from Chicago would be arriving shortly to offer their opinions.
Miss Lyons was quoted in the same article. “If they would only quit thinking of me as a freak. I don’t intend to die just because I have a temperature. I’m going to get well.”
But things seemed to go downhill quickly over the next couple of days. A special thermometer was obtained from the Weather Bureau and her fever was now registering a whopping 124° (51.1°C). Dr. Defnet reported that Evelyn had lost her appetite, had grown weaker, and was now starting to show signs of “serious nervous disorders.”
Then suddenly, on March 12th, it was all over. No, Evelyn Lyons did not die. Instead her body temperature had miraculously dropped to the normal range and she survived.
The headline in the March 13th edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune explained it all. “Hot Water Bag Put the ‘LY’ in Miss Lyons’ 114° Fever.” Yes, it was all one big hoax.
It was those two doctors from Chicago that did her in. Their first checks of Miss Lyons’ temperature with a mouth thermometer were consistent with the high readings that had been reported in the press. With the patient’s permission, they had Dr. Defnet catheterize her and collect a bottle of her urine. They then proceeded to once again take her temperature orally, while at the same time secretly measuring the temperature of the urine sample. The two results were not in agreement. The oral thermometer indicated a high fever, the urine showed that her temperature was within the normal range.
The doctors knew that they were being had and asked Miss Lyons to come clean. She strongly protested, but she did allow them to take her temperature again orally to prove that she was really sick. But getting that measurement wasn’t easy. Miss Lyons kept removing the thermometer from her mouth and shaking it wildly in her hand while expressing her concern that the glass tube could shatter in her mouth. Eventually she cooperated and, as they expected, the thermometer showed no fever.
The doctors once again demanded that Miss Lyons tell them how she pulled off the deception, but she offered no explanation. So, once again they placed the thermometer in her mouth to get a reading and this time left the room. But she was never really alone, since one of the physicians was spying on her through a crack in the door.
She was observed to arch her back upward and then place her hands and the thermometer underneath, before returning the glass tube to her mouth. When the doctors came back into the room, they demanded that she produce whatever it was that she was hiding. That is when she sat up, searched among the bed coverings, and finally produced an extremely hot water bottle about the size of a baseball.
It turns out that her mother had regularly providing the hot water bottle to help relieve pain in both her abdomen and back. What mom didn’t realize was that every time the doctors attempted to take her temperature, she would have a coughing fit and remove the thermometer from her mouth. At that point, she would momentarily touch the bulb of the thermometer to the heated bottle before reinserting it in her mouth.
In an Associated Press interview published on March 14th, Escanaba’s fever girl offered her apology and said, “My hoax first entered my head when Dr. Henry Defnet, the attending physician, turned his back to me and I touched the bulb of the instrument to the hot-water bottle.” She added, “Saturday night I knew that the collapse of the trick was near.” She further stated, “I knew Dr. Defnet was onto my scheme and so I tried to get out. Only I was so clumsy – so clumsy, and then they caught me.”
Yet, by the end of that same day, she had already denied the whole thing. “I have no statement to make except that the whole story of me being a fake is a rotten lie.”
Further investigation published in the Journal of the American Medical Association determined that Miss Lyons had visited every doctor in the area complaining of various maladies. Dr. Defnet had previously been called on to remove a piece of rubber from her bladder because, having been a former nurse, she attempted to catheterize herself. She proved to be such an annoyance during that particular procedure that she had become a persona non grata at the hospital. And that was before this whole fever thing started…
It was also learned that even though she was suffering from a record high fever that could have cost her her life, doctors were unable to convince her to go to the hospital or even to stay in bed and get some rest. The only way they could get her to the hospital was for the police to take her there. She remained in the hospital for about two days with a normal body temperature, before walking out of the hospital and returning to her home and imaginary fever.
According to several press reports in the weeks following the discovery of the hot water bottle, Evelyn Lyons really was sick with a fever, but they were all written with a sense of skepticism. I guess she cried wolf one too many times and few were now willing to believe her.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.