I can agree with the renal failure contributing to Harlow’s death, but I believe it was unrelated to her earlier episode of scarlet fever. Instead, I believe she experienced renal failure secondary to heart failure associated with long-standing hypothyroidism, which had never been treated or had been unsuccessfully treated.
Harlow had clear signs of hypothyroidism, including hair loss, problems with weight gain, and fatigue. All three of these issues are associated with hypothyroidism, which is relatively common among females, and without the modern synthetic thyroid hormone replacement therapy currently available, the disease can be progressive and life-threatening. Some have attributed her hair loss to the use of bleach to obtain her stunning platinum blonde hair and her weight gain to kidney failure. While kidney failure probably did occur in the final stages of her illness, I think the primary event was hypothyroidism-associated heart failure with secondary renal failure, rather than long-standing kidney damage from post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis.
Heart failure has a number of associated secondary changes, including renal failure because of poor circulation of blood to the kidneys, and, after renal failure sets in, weight gain can then ensue. While weight gain close to her death may well have occurred in Harlow’s case, she had chronic problems with weight gain and her doting mother frequently had her on very restrictive diets. So weight gain, a prominent feature of early and/or unsuccessfully treated hypothyroidism, was not simply a terminal event with Harlow, but a chronic issue.
While treatment with animal thyroid extracts for hypothyroidism was available by the 1930s (1), the use of such extracts was not successful in the hands of all practitioners. In addition, Harlow's mother was highly protective of her star child and for religious reasons appears to have restricted her daughter's access to effective medical treatments.
Thus, I conclude that Jean Harlow died at the age of 26 of complications related to chronic hypothyroidism.
1. Murray, GR. The Life-History of the First Case of Myxoedema Treated By Thyroid Extract. Brit Med J 1: 359-360, 1920.
©2015 Ralph Giorno