The Wilson Siamese Twins

Ask Vance

Dear Vance: Is it true that in the 1950s, a family in Memphis gave birth to conjoined twins? What happened to them?

— K.E., Memphis


Dear K.E.: You're not the first person to ask me this rather unusual question, and it stumped me for a long time. As you might imagine, I have many books — almost a dozen! — on local history in the Lauderdale Library, and even such tomes as The History of Medicine in Memphis failed to mention such an event. So I mentally filed it away in that dusty compartment of my once-great mind, where the cluster of neurons is labeled "Can't Possibly Be True," and went on my merry way.

One day recently, however, while rooting through the newspaper files in the Special Collections Department at the University of Memphis Library in my usual haphazard fashion, I stumbled upon a folder of photographs and clippings on this very topic. So here's the remarkable story of the Wilson twins. Warning: It may not be for the squeamish.

When 23-year-old Elizabeth Miller checked into 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" — which is a pretty big "except" if you ask me.

A 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.

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. She also gave the Gaston staff permission to try to separate the children.

But the Wilson 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 is never named in these articles — finally told reporters, "It looks like she will survive." She's shown at left with Gaston 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 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.

What was Whiz?

Dear Vance: I noticed this old "ghost" sign (top) painted on a building at the corner of Georgia and Florida. What on earth was Whiz? A soft drink?

— C.F., Germantown

Dear C.F.: Since "Whiz" is a crude expression for a certain bodily function, I thought it would be a particularly awful name for a soft drink. At the same time, I didn't know what it was. So I contacted my pal Andrew Northern, a public school teacher who, in his spare time, has made it his life's work to document just about every old building and sign in Memphis and Shelby County. Andrew was quite familiar with this sign, and told me that Whiz was actually a line of automotive products — cleaners, additives, and other chemicals used by mechanics.

The really fascinating part of this story, though, is the name painted on the bricks above the windows. R.M. Hollingshead not only founded the Whiz Auto Products Company, he is considered the father of the drive-in movie theater. Now, before you get all excited about that, I should explain that he's not from Memphis. He lived in Camden, New Jersey. According to The American Drive-In Movie Theater, a fine book by Don Sanders, "the year was 1933, and Hollingshead was trying to find a way to combine America's two great love affairs — the automobile and the movies." The enterprising fellow set a projector on the hood of his car, aimed it at a screen hung from a nearby tree, and hooked up some speakers. He thought it was a pretty cool way to watch movies, and after he opened his first "drive-in" theater in New Jersey, the concept caught on like wildfire.

I could tell you lots more about drive-in theaters — in the early days also called "auto-park theaters" and "park-in theaters" — but I'm running out of space here and don't want to get sidetracked. Let me just say that my chauffeur assures me that Whiz products are still being sold, and I believe the old building on Georgia was just one of many Hollingshead warehouses across the country. 

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