In 1939, a 5-year-old Peruvian girl from a poor Andean village was brought to a local hospital with concerns about swelling in her stomach. Lina was one of nine children, and her parents feared that the growing bulge in her abdomen was a tumor, but it turned out to be something far more startling.
After giving Lina a full examination, the doctors delivered the shocking diagnosis. Lina was seven months pregnant. On May 14, 1939, Lina delivered a healthy, 6-pound (3-kilogram) baby boy via Cesarean section. She was exactly 5 years, 7 months and 21 days old, making her the youngest mother in recorded history.
"It's an absolutely unbelievable story, but these things do happen," says Dr. Erica A. Eugster, a pediatric endocrinologist and professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
Lina represents an extreme case of a relatively common childhood condition called precocious puberty. Endocrinologists treat hormonal disorders, and pediatric endocrinologists like Eugster frequently see patients who are exhibiting outward signs of puberty — breast development and menstruation in girls, enlarged genitals and voice changes in boys — at an early age.
Doctors in the U.S. define precocious puberty as secondary sexual development that starts before the age of 8 for girls and the age of 9 for boys (African American children often start puberty a little earlier than white or Hispanic kids).
But a young girl entering puberty at 6 or 7, while unusual, is a far cry from a 5-year-old who has completed puberty, as was the astounding case with young Lina. Could that really happen?
"We do see that, but it's extraordinarily rare," says Eugster. "In the past 10 years, our hospital has diagnosed precocious puberty in four children ages 2 and under, but nothing like this notorious case. One report claimed that Lina started menstruating at 8 months. That's the earliest case of precocious puberty on record and I've never seen anything like that."
The Birth Reported Around the World
"Five-and-Half-Year-old Mother and Baby Reported Doing Well." It sounds like a tabloid headline you'd read today in the grocery store checkout line, but that was the front-page story in the Los Angeles Times on May 16, 1939, according to Snopes. The news was as shocking then as it is now, but it wasn't a hoax.
The remarkable (and troubling) case of Lina Medina was confirmed by medical authorities in Peru, notably Edmundo Escomel, a respected doctor-researcher and a member of the French Academy of Sciences. And the physician who first saw Medina in the town of Pisco, Dr. Gerardo Lozada, reported the case to the Academy of Medicine in the capital city of Lima.
"I think there's very good documentation," says Eugster. "There are published reports referring to it, so I don't doubt it, but that's the only case of its kind that I'm aware of."
Escomel sent dispatches about Medina's case to La Presse Medicale, a French medical journal, including a grainy image of the pregnant 5-year-old, noting that she had fully developed breasts.
The New York Times reported in November 1939 that the assistant surgeon general of the U.S. Public Health Service examined Medina while in Peru and "there was no doubt of the authenticity of the case which he described as the most amazing thing in his career as a physician." He added that the little girl was more interested in playing with her doll than in her child.
The Difficult Question: Who Was the Father?
Escomel and others gently pressed Medina to identify the father of her baby, but she "couldn't give precise responses," wrote Escomel, according to Snopes. Lina's own father was briefly detained on suspicions of incest but was released (he strongly denied the allegations). The family returned to their village and tried to avoid the press and medical authorities.
An American child psychologist did get to examine Lina briefly two years later.
"Lina is above normal in intelligence and the baby, a boy, is perfectly normal and is physically better developed than the average Mestiza (Spanish Indian) child," wrote the psychologist, identified by The New York Times as Mrs. Paul Kosak. "She thinks of the child as a baby brother and so does the rest of the family."
Lina named her son Gerardo after the physician who attended to her in Pisco. According to some accounts, Gerardo didn't learn that Medina was his mother until he was 10 years old.
As she grew older, Medina repeatedly rejected interview requests. As an adult she worked as a secretary for Lozada, who had delivered her baby. She eventually married and welcomed a second child in 1972, 33 years after Gerardo was born. Sadly, Gerardo died in 1979 at age 40 from bone cancer. According to a 2002 Reuters article, Medina and her husband were living in a run-down neighborhood in Lima at the time called "Little Chicago." It is unclear whether she is still alive today.
What Could Have Caused Lina's Condition?
Most cases of precocious puberty are "idiopathic," says Eugster, meaning that there is no known cause, but rarer cases of extremely early onset puberty have been linked to a benign brain tumor known as a hypothalamic hamartoma.
This type of tumor grows on the hypothalamus, a section of the brain that controls the pituitary gland, the organ responsible for producing and releasing a wide range of hormones, including those that regulate sexual development. While none of Lina's physicians mentioned such a tumor, Escomel did conclude that her condition was caused by a pituitary disorder.
Today, children with symptoms of precocious puberty are commonly treated with synthetic hormones that can slow or halt the progress of puberty until the child is older, says Eugster. If the cause is determined to be a hypothalamic hamartoma, the tumor can be removed with minimally invasive laser surgery.
Now That's Sad
Lina was clearly a victim of sexual abuse. Sadly, research has shown that childhood sexual abuse is also tied to early onset of puberty.
Please copy/paste the following text to properly cite this HowStuffWorks.com article: