The adenoid: Its history and a cautionary tale

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The existence of the adenoid first appears to have been noted by Conrad Victor Schneider in 1661. James Yearsley reported in 1842 one case in which he improved hearing by removal of a mucus membrane from behind the uvula, which indicates some appreciation of a relationship of the nasopharynx to ear disease. Hans Wilhelm Meyer, in 1868, was the first to demonstrate the relationship of the adenoid to ear disease and to develop an effective, although somewhat difficult, surgical operation to remove the adenoid. Removal of the adenoid became rapidly accepted worldwide as a treatment for many morbidities, including otitis, speech problems, cognitive problems, and sleep apnea. Until the 1920s, adenoidectomy often was performed as a staged procedure and without general anesthesia. Early tools and techniques included use of the bare fingernail, a finger ring knife, a curette, and electrical desiccation. From the mid-1930s to the early 1960s, radiation therapy of the adenoid was in extensive use, both for children and in caring for army aviators and navy submarine crews during WWII. The effectiveness of surgical adenoidectomy for hearing loss led to a belief that radiation, which had been found to ablate lymphoid tissue, would be equally effective, and led to the wide-spread use of radiation. Ultimately, 500 thousand to 2.5 million children and adults were estimated to have been treated with radiation, and follow-up studies found increased risk for cancer. Furthermore, a follow-up study by Stacey R. Guild (1890–1966), published in 1950, on a very large sample of children who previously were reported to have had their hearing loss diminished through radiation, found that irradiation had produced no effect on high-tone loss. Thus, irradiation was both useless and harmful. Acceptance of authority, which can lurk within medical culture, led to the development of a tragically misguided management of adenoid disease. Laryngoscope, 127:S13–S28, 2017.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)S13-S28
StatePublished - Jun 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Otorhinolaryngology


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