Vivian Campbell #1950s #pennsylvania #questionablestories

SUMMARY: Vivian Campbell, age 27, died July 7, 1950 after an abortion committed in Pittsburgh, PA. The perpetrator was never identified.

An Anecdote in a Book | | The Allegheny County Coroner's Records

Vivian Campbell
I was originally very skeptical about the story told on the National Organization for Women web site. They said that Vivian Campbell was a recently-separated 24-year-old mother of two when she discovered she was pregnant. NOW indicated that Vivian sent her children to stay with her parents while she obtained some sort of illegal abortion. NOW provided no details of the abortion, but did say that Vivian asked for her estranged husband, who came to the hospital only after she had died of peritonitis on May 6, 1950.

NOW did not indicate if Vivian's abortion was self-induced, done by an amateur, or done by a nurse or similar practitioner -- which would be unusual -- or by a doctor, as was the case with perhaps 90% of criminal abortions.

What happened when I started to investigate in a lesson in why it's always a good idea to check original sources when possible. Those sources can put your story on a rock-solid foundation. I'll start by looking at what I originally found, and my thoughts on those sources.

An Anecdote in a Book

In Patricia Miller's The Worst of Times, the chapter "Gloria" has a woman telling of her mother's death. The following facts match:

Neither story has any details whatsoever of how the abortion was performed, or by whom, or even who was suspected or what police investigation took place.

There are some differences:

"Gloria" indicated that she learned "the truth" of how her mother died when she needed a copy of the death certificate years later. The death certificate said "spontaneous abortion". Gloria clearly doesn't understand that this means a miscarriage; she took this as proof that her mother had obtained some sort of illegal abortion, much like Bill and Karen Bell misunderstood the word "abortion" on their daughter Becky's autopsy cover page, thought it meant an induced abortion, and assumed that it must have been a criminal or self-induced abortion.

The Allegheny County Coroner's Records

I decided to check the story out when I was able to visit the archives of the Allegheny County Coroner's Office in Pittsburgh. What I found left me totally bewildered as to why NOW and other abortion advocacy organizations using Vivian's story didn't bother to do any research.They certainly would have hit pay dirt.

Vivian worked for the IRS, her age was 27, and her death took place at 7:05 p.m. on Friday, July 7, 1950.

Her estranged husband, Edward L. Cambpell, told the coroner's jury that the two hadn't lived together for over a year. The evening of Thursday, June 22, he got a call at work, where he was painting a house. He was to go to the Elks Hall to pick up a package from Vivian and deliver it to the children. When Edward arrived, he noticed Vivian sitting at a table, drinking, with two men. Edward ordered a beer, and the bartender gave him the package. Though Vivian did approach the bartender to verify delivery of the package, she didn't speak at all to Edward.

On Wednesday, June 28, Edward spoke with Vivian's grandmother, Mrs. Jordon, who told him that Vivian was very sick. He called Vivian's home but the woman who answered, Miss Daniels, said that Vivian was too sick to speak to him. He told Miss Daniels to get a doctor and whatever else Vivian needed.

On Friday, June 30, Dr. John C. Reed was called in and cared for Vivian. He returned the next day, July 1, and talked to Vivian about his conclusion that she'd undergone an abortion. She admitted to taking a large amount of castor oil, but said she'd taken it for a cold. Dr. Reed told Vivian that she needed to go to the hospital, and her friends drove her to McKeesport Hospital, where she was admitted at 11:30 a.m, suffering from abdominal pain and distention, and moderate vaginal discharge but no bleeding. Her admission notes indicate that she had already expelled the fetus and most of the placenta, but might have retained some tissue. Her vital signs were alarming, with a pulse of 120 and respiration 26 and shallow. Her blood pressure was 118/70, within normal limits. She had some deep tenderness of the abdomen. She appeared to be slightly dehydrated.

Vivian's uterus was soft, enlarged, and tender. It was also showing signs of prolapse, meaning that her uterus was sitting lower in the vagina than it should have been. This may or may not have been related to the abortion. Her cervix was eroded, which likely was related to the abortion. Her doctor prescribed medications for her. Vivian continued to suffer nausea and vomiting, along with severe headaches and abdominal pain. The notes also indicated that Vivian had two healthy living children, and had suffered two previous miscarriages, raising the possibility that she had successfully induced abortions on herself in the past with no ill effects.

Edward visited Vivian at the hospital at about 3:30 that afternoon and found her very sick. He consulted with Dr. Reed, who said that Vivian had gangrene and was in very serious condition. He called her from time to time to check in on her. Finally on Friday, July 7, Edward got a call at about 4:30 p.m. from Vivian's family, telling him to hurry to the hospital. He found his estranged wife unconscious, and remained at her side until her death that evening. At no point, Edward said, had Vivian said anything to him about the abortion.

According to Vivian's death certificate, she had suffered a ruptured bowel during the abortion attempt, causing the peritonitis that killed her.


This obituary of retired Pittsburgh Police Commander Gwendolyn J. "Gwen" Elliott says that Gwen's mother was Vivian Campbell and died of a "botched abortion" when Gwen was 5, but Gwen didn't find out until she was an adult. This means that Gwen was almost certainly "Gloria" in Miller's book.Interestingly enough, though Gwen Elliott became a staunch supporter of legal abortion, she also founded a home for pregnant and parenting teens.

Abortion Deaths Since 1940.jpgDuring the 1950s, we see an anomaly: Though maternal mortality had been falling during the first half of the 20th Century, and abortion mortality in particular had been plummeting, the downward trend slowed, then reversed itself briefly. I have yet to figure out why. For more, see Abortion Deaths in the 1950's.

For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion


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