Photos courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries
Let me just tell you right now that this story is not for the squeamish. In fact, I was reluctant to tell it, but it is a rather remarkable thing, so here you go.
When 23-year-old Elizabeth Miller checked into Memphis’ John Gaston Hospital on the morning of May 7, 1954, to give birth to twins, the doctors performed a routine x-ray and made a shocking discovery. The two girls in her womb were joined at the head. A Memphis Press-Scimitar story said the mother was “very upset” when they told her the news, which would be putting it mildly, I think.
Pediatricians performed a C-section to deliver the girls, who were described as being in “the best of health.” One newspaper reported that the infants “appear normal except for being joined at the head.” That's a pretty big “except” if you ask me.
The photograph shows that one twin’s head was attached to the forehead of the other girl, which forced one baby to lie on her side while the other lay on her back. The good news — if you can call it that — is that an initial examination revealed that no major arteries or organs were linked; in other words, the girls didn’t share a brain. Instead, a broad section of skull bone had somehow fused together while the babies were developing. Doctors here were “cautiously optimistic” that the children could be separated.
This would be a remarkable feat. According to the American Medical Association, there had been only one other case in America where Siamese twins joined at the head were separated. Two years before, surgeons in Chicago attempted to separate two boys known as the “Brodie twins,” but only one child survived the 12-hour operation, and he died at age 11.
At first, the baby’s mother refused to see the girls, but she soon relented and named them Claudette and Constance, making a special point, so the newspapers said, of not giving them a middle name, for some reason that was never explained. She also gave the Gaston Hospital staff permission to try to separate the children.
But the Miller girls needed to grow a bit more so they could survive the grueling operation. The mother was released from the hospital, but her little girls remained there for another three months until doctors finally determined the time was right. First, they performed a preliminary operation — not described very well in the old newspaper accounts — to determine if separation was possible, and decided that an attempt would be made the following week.
Finally, on October 11, 1954, a team of neurosurgeons and plastic surgeons conducted the five-hour operation. Although it was first considered a success, little Constance’s heart “just wore out,” and she died that afternoon of “circulatory failure.” She was laid to rest in the Shelby County Cemetery.
Meanwhile, Claudette, although considered the weaker of the two, seemed to be doing fine. Doctors warned she would remain in danger for 72 hours, but she made it through that perilous period, and her pediatrician — who, oddly enough, is never named in these articles — finally told reporters, “It looks like she will survive.“ She's shown below with Gaston Hospital nurse Frances Novak.
One month later, little Claudette went home from the hospital. Her ordeal, however, was far from over. The operation left a gaping hole in her skull, which was sealed by a flap of skin. In six months, she returned to the hospital so the opening could be covered with a “bony material.” Doctors explained that “experimental plastics used in the last two attempts have not withstood the bumps and falls of a normal youngster.”
She would also return to John Gaston several more times for follow-up procedures, but at any rate she survived the main operation.
So what happened to her? Well, I can’t really say. The local newspaper files contained no more clippings or photographs, so I assume the girl grew up and — I hope — had a relatively normal childhood. In fact, I believe she lived another 30 years or so. After some digging around, I turned up a death certificate for a Claudette Miller — no middle name, just as her mother requested — who died in Hardeman County on February 20, 1988, at the age of 33. It’s almost certainly the same woman who made medical history in Memphis more than half a century ago.