April’s fool on PubMed in September: The Elle Macpherson disease

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If I told you that not long ago doctors treated tall girls for tallness would you then believe that it was an April’s fool joke?

Alerted through our medical watchdog Ben Goldacre I was pointed to a scientific article. Reading the first few lines of Goldacre’s blog I thought he was late on the April’s fool joke. But he pointed to a genuine article: “The medicalisation of ‘tall’ girls: A discourse analysis of medical literature on the use of synthetic oestrogen to reduce female height” published in September 2010 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.06.026) and it is there on PubMed.

In the article we get to read:

The first paper reporting the ‘successful’ treatment of tall girls was published in 1956 (Goldzieher, 1956). Over the next four decades [after 1956], the treatment of tall girls with synthetic oestrogen became an accepted clinical practice in many high-income countries – Australia, the US, European countries including France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavian countries Sweden, Norway and Denmark, despite acknowledged short-term side effects and no evidence of efficacy or long-term safety.

In Australia girls eligible for treatment was the ones with a predicted height equal to or more than 177 cm. According to Wikipedia supermodel Elle Macpherson is 1.83 cm, so she seems to be suffering from tallness. 1.75 meter high Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford should have been treated in the United States to avoid suffering.

The reason for the treatment was psychosocial and indeed some girls have been bullied because of their height. An article with actress Brigitte Nielsen (who seems to be 1.84 or 1.85 meters according to the
Internet) recounts

[…] many years she was bullied [on a new school], because she was too tall, too thine, wrong and also a bit too clever. […] “I can remember the first day, when I got into the class, and they were all rolling on the floor laughing at me. I was taller than the teachers.” […]

The question remains whether it was ok to treat girls. Apparently no. one article writes:

While untreated women were almost unanimously glad they were not treated (99.1%), no matter how tall they became, 42.1% of the treated women expressed dissatisfaction with the decision that was made. There was no clear association between satisfaction with treatment and the women’s final height.

The treatment may also be associated with decreased fertility, see Oestrogen treatment to reduce the adult height of tall girls: long-term effects on fertility.

And BTW: “[…] recent literature suggests treatment of ‘tall’ girls continues in the US […], Sweden […] and France […]”. (from “The medicalisation of ‘tall’ girls: A discourse analysis of medical literature on the use of synthetic oestrogen to reduce female heightstar)”

(2011-07-19: A previous version stated that an article was published in September 2011. This should have been September 2010. Corrected)

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