Some people here in Russia say that there was a time when appendixes were considered so useless and potentially dangerous by USA doctors that they performed operations upon asymptomatic children to remove them. Others make the same claim about tonsillectomy.

Is there any substance to these claims? A nation-wide appendectomy program seems completely implausible to me, tonsillectomy in anticipation of epidemic less so, but still doubtful. Yet may there have been some experimental programs in select states/counties?


1 Answer 1


This is true as far as tonsils.

According to The rise and decline of tonsillectomy in twentieth-century America Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences vol. 62, pages 383-421. which states:

Between 1915 and the 1960s, T&A [tonsillectomy/adenoidectomy] was the most frequently performed surgical procedure in the United States. Its rise was dependent on novel medical concepts, paradigms, and institutions that were in the process of reshaping the structure and practice of medicine. The driving force was the focal theory of infection, which assumed that circumscribed and confined infections could lead to systemic disease in any part of the body. The tonsils in particular were singled out as "portals of infection," and therefore their removal became a legitimate therapy. Nevertheless, what kinds of evidence could prove that tonsils were portals of infection? How could the effectiveness of tonsillectomy be determined? An inherent difficulty was the absence of any consensus on the criteria that would be employed to judge its efficacy. Yet tonsillectomy persisted despite ambiguous supportive evidence. Although criticisms of the procedure were common by the 1930s, its decline did not begin until well after 1945 and involved debates over the nature of evidence, the significance of clinical experience in the validation of a particular therapy, and the role of competing medical specialties

See also the presentation History of Tonsillectomy which explains that in early 20th century the procedure was considered a "general measure to promote good health" and quotes a 1939 reference:

The doctors had coolly descended on the school, taken possession, lined the children up, marched them past, taken one look down each child’s throat, and then two strong arms seized and held the child while the doctor used his instruments to reach down into the throat and rip out whatever came nearest to hand, leaving the boy or girl frightened out of a year’s growth and bleeding savagely

  • Anecdotally routine tonsillectomy in healthy children continued way, way past 1945. At least 90% of baby boomers I know had a tonsillectomy as a child. (Baby boomers are people born between 1946 and 1964). It was one of those things that really baffled me as a child - why did every adult I know get their tonsils removed but I was supposed to keep mine?
    – Sam I Am
    Jul 12, 2015 at 4:18
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    @SamIAm the maximum number of tonsillectomies in a year (in USA) was 1.4 million in 1959, when there were 4.3 million births. So more like 30%.
    – DavePhD
    Jul 12, 2015 at 11:10
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    I had my tonsils removed ca 1955, at age 6. I was a sickly child, but I don't think I had serious infections of the tonsils -- more just asthma and allergies. Mar 26, 2019 at 2:23

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