World Sickle Cell Day and the legacy of Walter Clement Noel

World Sickle Cell Day and the legacy of the patient Walter Clement Noel (1884-1916)

Sickle Cell Anemia is now recognized as the “world’s largest genetic disorder”, but that was not the case when Walter Clement Noel left his place of birth, Grenada to pursue post-secondary education in dentistry, first in Barbados and then the USA. Walter was the son of a wealthy planter in the town of Sauteurs, a small parish village on the Northern coast of the island.

Walter first fell ill shortly after his arrival to New York, displaying what is now known as typical sickle cell symptoms; severe skin lesions, pains in his limbs and shortness of breath. He was admitted to Chicago’s Presbyterian Hospital and was seen by the intern on duty, Dr. Ernest E. Irons. Routine blood work revealed abnormalities in the shape of his blood cells noting several “pear shaped, elongated forms – some small”.

Findings were reported to attending physician Dr. James B. Herrick who continued to document this rare occurrence for the next two and a half years. In 1910, three years after Walter had returned to Grenada to practice dentistry, Dr. Herrick assisted by Dr. Irons prepared and published an article describing “peculiar elongated and sickle shaped red blood corpuscles in a case of severe anemia”. The patient he had described was none other than Walter Clement Noel, making him the first documented case of sickle cell anemia recorded in Western medicine.

As is wont to happen in lesser developed nations in those times, there is little recorded history or documentation of Walter’s life from his return to the island of Grenada in 1907 until his death a short nine years later in May 1916 at the age of thirty-two (32). Records list the cause of death as pneumonia.

Dr. Herrick’s 1910 report concluded, “We were at loss to account for this peculiar complex of symptoms”. Fortunately today, much more is known about the disease, including confirmation that it is in fact a genetic disease. The Sickle cell disease is a group of inherited disorders caused by a defect in hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body and carries carbon dioxide back to the lungs. What is also known is that it is the most inherited blood disorder in the United States occurring most often in African-Americans and Hispanics. According to health.usnews.com, approximately 1 in 500 African-Americans are born with SCD and 10% carry one gene for SCD, the ‘sickle cell trait’.

Advocacy efforts have secured sickle cell screening in most developed countries and a worldwide recognition of World Sickle Cell Awareness Day on June 19. Within the Caribbean community, organizations like the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario (SCAO) and the Sickle Cell Association of Grenada have subsequently sought to use all available resources to promote public awareness of this disorder and to encourage the development, implementation and evaluation of a comprehensive Sickle cell programmes.  Contributed. Trisha Mitchell

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June 19 is World Sickle Cell Day

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