Lucille Ball's Battle With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Comedienne had a crippling bout of arthritis as a teenage model

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Lucille Ball (born August 6, 1911, died April 26, 1989) is revered as the queen of comedy. She left a legacy of film from "I Love Lucy" and other work that lives on. Her body of work supplements our memories of "Lucy" as an actress, comedienne, and clown. The characters she played were often portrayed with vigorous physical comedy and required endurance, timing, and energy. With this realization, a little-known fact about Lucy becomes somewhat unbelievable, as a teenager, Lucille Ball was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

She discusses this diagnosis in her autobiography, "Love, Lucy," and it is detailed on the Hattie Carnegie website.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Strikes

As a 17-year-old girl with aspirations of becoming an actress, Lucille Ball went to New York City with the intention of making her dreams come true. She was not an overnight success, and struggled through theater school, working as a chorus line girl, and as a model. When she began working for Hattie Carnegie's internationally famous dress shop as a model her luck improved. She was then in a world of rich society women and glamorous movie stars.

On one particular day, while standing on a dais for a fitting at Hattie's dress shop, Lucy felt excruciating pain in both her legs, as if they were on fire. This incident was preceded by several days with a bout of pneumonia and fever. Hattie sent Lucy around the corner to her doctor. The doctor advised Lucy that the pains were arthritic, possibly rheumatoid arthritis.

He described rheumatoid arthritis as an incurable disease which becomes progressively more crippling until the sufferer ends up in a wheelchair and instructed Lucy to go to a hospital immediately. The doctor gave her the address of an orthopedic clinic near Columbia University.

Lucille Ball sat for three hours at the clinic, awaiting her turn.

By the time she was seen by the clinic doctor Lucy was crying and half fainting from the intense pain. After examining her, the clinic doctor shook his head, and asked her permission to try a new, radical treatment described by Lucy as "some kind of horse serum". She agreed to the treatment, willing to do anything for some relief. Lucy stayed in her room and the doctor came and gave her the injections for several weeks until her money ran out. Her legs were not better and she decided her only option was to return to her parents home in Jamestown, New York. At this point, Lucy described herself as "discouraged, but not terribly frightened."


At her parents home, Lucy was lectured by her father on taking better care of herself. Her mother devoted her evenings to massaging her legs and cheering her up. Months passed by, and Lucy was still in such pain that she described the time that passed as a blur. The horse serum injections were continued. It was a highly experimental treatment, last-ditch effort and Lucy considered herself a guinea pig.

Gradually the pain subsided and finally one day with the support of her father and doctor, Lucy stood up, feeling wobbly and unsteady. Her left leg was now somewhat shorter than her right leg and it pulled sideways.

To correct this she began wearing a weight in one of her black orthopedic shoes and braces. She continued to convalesce at home. Though Lucy had residual pain she was able to take a part offered her with the Jamestown Players, and Lucille Ball later returned to New York City in search of her dreams.

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