Danny Wilson’s Mastoid Operation

I cannot imagine having to take my precious preschooler to the hospital in a big city, having them operate on his head, then ask you not to come to see him for ten days. It happened to my grandmother Leora Wilson the summer of 1927, the mother of seven children.

The month of July started out with plans for her to go along on a short trip with her parents and a brother. Leora’s much younger brother Willis Goff had graduated from Iowa’s Guthrie Center High School, then “rode the rails” to see the country. During his travels, while waiting tables at a resort in the West, he met a Kansas City family named Hummel on vacation. He eventually married their daughter, Ann.

Leora’s parents wanted to visit Hummels in Kansas City, so their son Jennings Goff said he would drive them down from Dexter, Iowa. Everyone thought it would be so good if Leora could go along, but she had seven children, from ages 2 to 12.

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Junior, Danny, twins Darlene and Dale, Doris, Donald, and Delbert Wilson. 1927, Penn Township, Madison County, Iowa

Clabe Wilson said that he could keep the oldest, Delbert and Donald, busy on the farm. Leora’s younger sister Ruby Goff, who lived with her parents in the Dexter house, said she’d keep the rest of the kids–Doris (8), Dale and Darlene (just turned 6), and Danny (barely 4).

The Goff-Wilson group, which included Junior, motored to Kansas City to meet Ann and her family. Leora reported that they “had a good visit and the folks at Kansas City showed us a good time. They just adored Junior, he was so good and cute.”

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Leora was glad to get home but little Danny had an earache. Clabe, who always smelled like Prince Albert tobacco, blew smoke into Danny’s ear, which seemed to help with earaches.

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A neighbor stopped by to hear about Leora’s trip. While Leora rocked Danny, the neighbor noticed  a tell-tale bulge behind the boy’s ear. “Mrs. Wilson, I think your boy has a mastoid.” The doctor uptown confirmed it and said to take him to a specialist in Des Moines.

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The next day when Danny left on the train to Des Moines with their folks, Delbert was so worried that he cried.

Surgery was done at Methodist Hospital. Clabe was allowed to watch how they cut away the bone in order to drain the mastoid. The nurses told us they thought it best to not come to see him, as they would take care of him. And he would get upset and cry to go home if they’d visit him, so–as hard as that was–they left their 4-year-old in the hospital for ten days. They were allowed to phone every day to see how he was doing. Fine, just fine, they were assured.


The three oldest kids got to go to Des Moines in the Model T with their parents to bring home their little brother. When Danny noticed his mother’s hat, he began to laugh and cry at the same time. He stood up with his arms out–crayons spilling everywhere, tears of joy running down his little face–as he ran towards his mother. The others cried, too. His head was still bandaged, and the nurses had polished his fingernails.

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Methodist Hospital, Des Moines, Iowa, 1927: Doris, Clabe holding Danny, Delbert, Donald is in the back seat of the Model T.

After they got back to the farm, Wilsons took Danny to the doctor in town every day to have the incision dressed, and after ten days, returned to Des Moines for a checkup.

For some time after his ear was healed, if something happened that Danny didn’t like, he would hold his ear as an excuse. This was before penicillin. A few years later, a small girl died from a mastoid operation.

Delbert Wilson always associated Danny’s mastoid operation with Col. Charles Lindbergh, who had flown solo across the Atlantic Ocean that spring, and hoped to become a pilot someday. Delbert didn’t, but his three youngest brothers drew airplanes and even made wooden ones for school display days during the next few years. All three became pilots during WWII.

During the war, when Dan Wilson was in cadet training, he wrote home that when they noticed he’d had a mastoidectomy as a child, he needed a recheck on his hearing. But his hearing was fine. Lt. Daniel Wilson earned his wings in February, 1944.

This story is also told in Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression.

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