Roughly 100,000 Americans are dwarfs. They have trouble finding mates, buying shoes, using elevators or public telephones—and admitting to themselves that they are, in fact, different.
Charles Bedou, at the age of forty, stands four and a half feet tall. When the towheaded Bedou was born, he weighed nearly nine pounds and was the size of any normal baby. Five years later, however, he was less than two feet tall; at ten, he was three feet; when he celebrated his eighteenth birthday, he was fourfoot-six; and in the ensuing twenty-two years, he did not grow another inch. His body is all out of whack. His head and torso are the size of a much taller person’s; his arms and legs are much too small. He is what is known as a dwarf.
Bedou’s parents split up when he was six, and since neither wanted custody, he was shuffled from relative to relative, “like a plate of spaghetti,”until, at last, when he was eighteen he ran away. “I had no dates in school, and I didn’t have many friends,” he says. “When you’re the only dwarf in sixteen counties, whom do you date? It took me more than six months to find a job. I applied to more places than you have fingers and toes, and everyone felt my brain must be as stunted as my body. When I finally got work at an insurance company in Minnesota, there were still things my boss didn’t want me to do. Life hasn’t been exactly marvelous.”
Dwarfs receive mention in the Bible, and during ancient times household dwarfs were extremely popular: they were kept by the early pharaohs and abounded at the courts of the Ptolemies. They flourished once again in imperial Rome, where slave children were occasionally stunted to increase the fetching price. Kings in medieval Europe and during the Renaissance kept them at hand, and some dwarfs became such favorites that they themselves were given servants. Isabella d’Este designed part of her palace for dwarfs, and remembered two of them in her will. They appear in a number of Velasquez’s paintings. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the czars and noblemen of Russia kept innumerable dwarfs, and elaborate dwarf weddings and funerals were not uncommon. However, while especially personable dwarfs earned responsible positions, most of them functioned as lowly entertainers and as household fools. In Western Europe, household dwarfs were still heard of in the eighteenth century, but their visibility had declined.
In the United States today, dwarfs have formed a national organization called The Little People of America, which has its headquarters in Owatonna. Minnesota. The association was founded in 1957 by a group of twenty dwarfs who convened in Reno, Nevada. The idea for the meeting, as it happens. came from Spike Jones, of zany music fame, who urged his friend, dwarf actor Billy Barty, to start an outfit that would speak for little people. Barty served as the first president, and by 1960 the association had a hundred members. Now, more than 2200 little people have joined the association. Anyone four-foot-ten or smaller (the height arbitrarily fixed by the medical profession as distinguishing dwarfs from normal-sized people) can join. The organization’s motto is “Think Big.” and its basic message is that dwarfs suffer mainly because of society’s attitude toward them.
Among other things, the association maintains an adoption referral service, which finds homes for dwarf children abandoned by parents. “A lot of dwarfs used to be committed to mental institutions by parents who didn’t want them.” an LPA man says. In 1968, the LPA established a foundation to raise funds for scholarships and for the ordinary expenses of needy dwarfs. A special division is devoted to problems faced by teen-aged dwarfs. “At one time, the world thought the only thing to do with little people was to put them in sideshows and laugh at them,” says Gerald Rasa, a Pennsylvania public relations man who is the LPA’s president. “They were labeled ‘heaven’s curse.’ We’re trying to show the world that we are useful, that we’re not society’s black sheep.”
“Dwarfs have a lot of architectural problems that we’re trying to learn to deal with.” says Bedou, a former president of the LPA. “Ever since I can remember, my feet have dangled over the edge of chairs. I would literally slide off the seat. To stay on, I have to wrap my legs around the chair, like I’m riding a bucking bronco. It’s not very dignified. Get on your knees and try to make a phone call from a public telephone. Get on your knees and try to negotiate the first step on a bus. Get into an elevator and try to push the button for the seventy-eighth floor. I have to have clothing custom-made, and it costs me just as much as it does Wilt Chamberlain. Imagine going into a shoe store and asking for a nice loafer in a size one.”
Bedou, however, makes the most of his four feet and six inches. “If I have to make a phone call,” he says, “I holler at someone, ‘Put the damn dime in for me.’ I have a very good set of lungs, and I don’t hesitate to use them. I can’t use a urinal in a men’s room. It’s outrageous that I should have to pay a dime, so I crawl under a stall, and I usually go down the line and open them all up. You plan a little better when you’re short. I use pedal extensions to drive a car. Other dwarfs I know fly their own planes with similar devices. Our homes aren’t much different, except we favor modern furniture, because it’s usually low-slung. I have lots of stools around the house. Some of us, you know, are not much more than two feet tall.”
Largely under the auspices of the LPA, dwarfs have brought to the attention of legislators the architectural problems they face. They have joined other minority groups, such as the National Association of the Physically Handicapped, to push for legislation requiring lower pay phones, curbside ramps, railings in public toilets, and similar conveniences.
Short-statured persons share a fierce pride in their heritage, and they take pleasure in pointing out the movers and shakers of their kind who have played important roles in history. Attila the Hun, for instance, is believed to have been a dwarf, an unusually bloodthirsty one. Both Charles III, king of Sicily and Naples in the fourteenth century, and his contemporary, Ladislas I of Poland, were midgets. Ladislas won the nickname of the Warrior Midget King, and the history books credit (or discredit) him with having trimmed a substantial number of taller men down to his size in battle. The twenty-three-inch midget Richebourg of Paris played no small part in the French Revolution. Along with hidden dispatches, he was thumbed through enemy lines as a babe in arms; he would nurse a bottle until safety was reached and then, after fumbling in his clothes, would produce and light up a tremendous cigar. Sir Jeffrey Hudson, a midget courtier during the reign of Charles I in seventeenth-century England, polished off his share of men in his country’s wars, only to wind up a captive of Turkish pirates.
A number of noncombatant midgets and dwarfs also made the history books - Coppernin, who served the mother of George II; Nicholas Ferry, a counselor-attendant to King Stanislas of Poland. Even so, dwarf history owes most of its notoriety to Phineas T. Barnum, whose midget showpiece, General Tom Thumb, became one of the most popular men of his era. Thumb was not a career soldier. Originally, his name was Charles Sherwood Stratton; the alias derived from the ballad containing the line, “In Arthur’s court, Tom Thumb did live.” and Barnum threw on the “General” in the interest of public relations.
Thumb stood thirty-one inches tall, and weighed almost seventy pounds. Barnum presented him as the tiniest man in the annals of civilization, a bit of mendacity willfully indulged by the General. Barnum found Thumb a pint-sized bride named Lavinia Warren, who, he claimed, was the smallest woman to walk the earth, though she would have needed several inches of cropping to warrant that distinction. With customary hoopla, Barnum arranged a wedding in New York’s Grace Episcopal Church in 1863, a tribute to bad taste that afforded possibly the worst start ever made by newlyweds, whatever their height. The honeymoon junket included a pause for dinner at the White House with President Lincoln, whose waist was higher than either Thumb or his new bride. In the end, Thumb and his wife proved of heartier substance than their theatrical mentor. While Barnum’s financial condition took a nose dive, General and Mrs. Thumb gradually left the stage and went into the real estate business in Connecticut. They made a fortune.
The vast majority of dwarfs stand between forty and fifty-four inches tall. (Pygmies, who aren’t classitied as dwarfs, average around fifty-six inches, and, without exception, inherit their stunted stature.) If one is to believe Ripley’s Believe It or Nut anthology, the smallest dwarf was Pauline Musters of Holland, all of nineteen inches. Fully erect, she could walk under the dining-room table and not even muss her hair. Juan de la Cruz of the Philippines billed himself the world’s smallest father; he measured two feet tall. Forty-eight-inch John Louis Roventini gained worldwide fame by serving for forty-one years as a living trademark for Philip Morris Inc.’s cigarettes. His shrill voice was insured for $50,000, and, for his own protection, his contract forbade that he ride the subway during rush hour. A former New York bellboy, “Johnny” retired last year after millions of calls for “Phil-lip Mor-rees!”
A number of dwarfs, for unknown reasons, start to grow again and, usually in their late twenties or early thirties, attain normal height. Austria’s Adam Rainer zoomed from three-foot-ten at the age of twenty-one to seven-foot-two at thirty-two, the most dramatic growth spurt known. Some dwarfs, despite their initial grief over being tiny, are haunted by the prospect of a late spurt. Once they have become oriented to their special adulthood, they are understandably wary of realigning themselves to a new and puzzling scale. Dwarf legend has it that small people lead short lives, and though medical research disproves the idea, life insurance companies tend to believe it; dwarfs complain they have trouble purchasing policies. Le Petit M. Richebourg of Paris lived to the ripe old age of ninety.
For many years dwarfs had few job opportunities outside the field of entertainment. The outbreak of World War II did a lot to change that.
For the first time, they were able to enter aircraft factories, defense plants, shipyards, and government offices, and much to the surprise of employers, they proved capable and dependable workers. Many still work as sales promotional representatives. Meat-packer Oscar Meyer & Co. uses five midgets as “Little Oscars” to peddle its wieners, mostly to taller customers.
“But it would be like an ostrich putting his head in the sand to say job discrimination doesn’t persist,” says Charles Bedou. “I know of a dwarf rejected for a teaching job because the school board thought she couldn’t discipline a class. Another dwarf was turned down for a research job by several drug firms because, they said, he couldn’t reach laboratory instruments, which is pretty ridiculous. But people now realize we can do a lot more than was thought. Some jobs are hard for us. Nursing would be difficult, because it involves moving people around. Ditch-digging wouldn’t be any good, because a dwarf would have to throw the dirt a lot farther from the bottom of a six-foot hole. But dwarfs are doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, elevator operators, some even work in light construction.”
Since among disabilities dwarfism seems one of the hardest to face, many parents of sufferers tend to react quite strongly to it. “When a dwarf is born into a family, the typical reaction is one of shock, almost a reaction of mourning for the perfect child who didn’t come,” says Joan Weiss, a social worker for the Moore Clinic, the nation’s leading dwarfism research center and a unit of Johns Hopkins Medical Center. “The parents, especially the mother, tend to treat a dwarf as a living family skeleton. If the dwarfed child’s father and mother are inhibited in their parental roles by their disappointment and sense of failure, the child will not be able to develop into an emotionally secure adult, and will regard himself as inadequate and insufficient in measurements other than height.” What frequently happens, Mrs. Weiss goes on, is that parents become overly protective of their child, thus deflating his ego. Lee Kitchens, for instance, a Texas engineer, was helped across streets by his mother until he was sixteen. Another dwarf remembers being refused use of the family car while in high school. When he got to college, he holed away enough money to buy a car of his own, and taught himself to drive with help from pedal extensions.
One of the most consuming, and frustrating, interests a dwarf has is finding a mate. Mrs. Weiss says. “Social problems for dwarfs begin about the time they enter the second grade, mostly in the form of physical and verbal teasing. This foments insecurity. Then the second crucial period is in the teens, once puberty is reached, when dwarfs suffer four or five times the dating problems of other teens.” A small proportion of dwarfs date, and sometimes marry, people of normal height, though the LPA reports that the mortality rate of mixedheight marriages is exceedingly high.
Painfully aware of the persistent romantic woes of its members, the LPA sponsors weekend regional conferences (social get-togethers), furnishes members with names of eligible partners, and otherwise intrigues to throw together potential spouses. Three quarters of the married couples in the organization met as a result of this planning. Perhaps the most anticipated event on a dwarf’s social calendar is the LPA annual convention, where no one in attendance is more than five feet tall. At the convention, rotated around the country, organizers offer a wide-ranging set of activities— dances, boat rides, shows.
Quite a number of dwarfs, however, refuse to join the LPA: mainly, say LPA people, because they refuse to accept the reality of their abnormal stature. Professor Martin Weinberg of Rutgers, in a study he conducted on dwarfs in 1968, found that many dwarfs believe they are normal in every way, a belief they reinforce by refraining from virtually all social contact with other dwarfs. “Dwarfs who join the LPA have already come to grips with the fact that they have a big problem,” Rasa says. “I know one dwarf, immensely talented as a musician, who has closeted herself off from society. It’s very sad.”
Abnormally undersized persons fall into two general categories, and although as many as seventy-five possible causes of dwarfism have been isolated—hormonal failure, defective genes, bone diseases, inadequate nutrition, to name a few—the common malfunction with both varieties is glandular. In the type known loosely as dwarfs and identified medically as achondroplastic dwarfs, a bone disorder at birth results in a stumpiness of the extremities, a large, globular head, and the powerful torso of a person much taller. Growth plods along at a quarter of an inch a year, rather than the customary two-inch speed. Doctors estimate that more than three quarters of dwarfs are of this type (including the dwarf of Norse mythology). Pituitary dwarfs, commonly known as midgets, are unremarkable at birth, but they cease growing in early childhood, and, though very small, are perfectly proportioned. Midgets rarely grow taller than forty inches.
Many dwarfs marry among themselves, and have children (usually by Cesarean section) who almost always grow to full adult height. A prolific English couple sired fourteen normal children. Some midgets, however, fail to reach puberty, and therefore remain sexually immature. Male voices retain a high pitch. While carnivals often tout midget wrestlers, midgets are almost invariably ineffective grapplers. They are, on the whole, extremely feeble.
One in every few thousand births is a dwarf baby, and doctors reckon that roughly 100,000 Americans are dwarfs. They appear in especially great numbers in cultures which marry only among themselves. The Amish, for example, who prohibit wedlock outside their own bloodlines, have a population that is nearly one percent abnormally undersized. This data comes from Dr. Victor McKuisick, head of the Department of Medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, who has studied the Amish and dwarfism at great length. “An island called Krk, off the coast of Yugoslavia, has a high incidence of pituitary dwarfs for the same reason.” McKuisick says, “and the same is true of a few other places around the world.”
Owing partly to The Little People of America, partly to greater interest in clinical genetics, and partly to gratifying results attained in tissue culture work, medical practitioners have recently intensified their examination of the roots of dwarfism. Progress has been painfully slow, and the prognosis is guardedly hopeful, but researchers soldier on.
Some important encouragement has already been offered the slender percentage (less than one percent) of dwarfs plagued by deficiencies of human growth hormone (HGH). HGH is one of eight hormones manufactured by the pituitary gland, an organ no bigger than a pea that sits beneath the brain at the base of the skull. Released into the bloodstream, HGH assists in the complex chemical process of growth. Among other things, it helps the body lasso amino acids needed to build proteins and it raises the level of blood sugar needed for energy. Nothing whatsoever could be done about hypopituitary dwarfs until 1956, when Dr. Maurice Rabin of Tufts University School of Medicine first extracted purified HGH from the pituitaries of cadavers. Since then, HGH injections have stimulated the growth of some 2000 midget children. Some of them have grown as tall as fivefoot-five. Mature hypopituitary dwarfs can’t be restored in this manner, since their bone cells have already fused and resist stimulation.
Though HGH treatment of dwarfism is a distinguished medical achievement, only HGH from human or monkey pituitaries works, and the supply from these sources is all too limited. Doctors reckon that thousands more midget children would be taller today if the hormone had been more plentiful in the last decade. To get more HGH, a National Pituitary Agency was formed in 1963 by the U.S. Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases and the College of American Pathologists. It has been overseeing an educational campaign to persuade pathologists to save human pituitaries after performing autopsies, and to urge the public to will their pituitaries in the same way they will their eyes and other organs. Human Growth Inc., an educational foundation formed in 1965, largely by parents and relatives of hypopituitary dwarfs, has been carrying on the same campaign. The real answer, doctors think, probably lies in synthetic HGH. Biochemist C. H. Li of the University of California at Berkeley has done the spadework here. In 1966, he first identified the structure of the HGH molecule—a baffling sequence of 188 amino acids. In 1971, he synthesized the hormone. His product, however, proved only 10 percent as effective as the natural hormone. Dr. Li says that 25 to 50 percent effectiveness can be achieved, and that large-scale treatment would essentially eradicate hypopituitary dwarfism.
“Dwarfism, generally, I think of as rather like running a business,” says Dr. Edmund Murphy, the Moore Clinic’s director. “You need management, materials, and labor. You can think of an absence of pituitary growth hormone as being deficient management, so to speak. You can think of lack of materials as being undernutrition. Then you have shortage of labor. There are people who have abnormal bone structure or cartilage cells, which make them unable to make use of the labor. All we have so far is a cure for deficient management, which, as a cause of dwarfism, is hardly a big problem at all. So if you’ve got a shoe factory, and you’re plumb out of leather, it does little good to have a great many cobblers at hand.”
Some disproportionate dwarfs plagued by bone disorders have been administered a modified sex hormone called oxandrolone, which is far more abundant than HGH. It is also far less effective. Continuing to frustrate medical science is the considerable task of identifying the cause in a specific case of dwarfism, a process which in many instances requires years. In fact, in certain extremely rare cases, the origin can be entirely psychological. This disorder is known as the emotional deprivation syndrome, in which children cease growing because of a home environment stripped of love. Such children are brought to hospitals, where loving nurses stimulate growth. When they return home, growth stops.
On the whole, dwarfs have refrained from placing all their hopes on medicine. “We are willing to accept our deficiencies, and to make the best of them,” says Charles Bedou. “When people stare at me—and they invariably do—I make out that it’s more curiosity than anything else. Let them look.” □