The Tragic Death Of Jean Harlow

Actress and sex symbol Jean Harlow's decade in Hollywood was cut short by her tragic death on June 7, 1937, when she was just 26 years old. The original "blonde bombshell" had been hospitalized since May 29 with uremic poisoning, according to an archived newspaper clipping by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Uremic poisoning — otherwise known as acute renal failure or acute kidney failure, according to History — is a result of kidney damage or failure, per Healthline, and in Harlow's case, it was thought that she incurred kidney damage when she was 15 years old as a result of having scarlet fever, according to the official website of Jean Harlow

Scarlet fever is a rash that can develop all over the body of someone who has strep throat, and it's often accompanied by a fever. Today, strep throat is easily treated with antibiotics, but in 1926 when Harlow had the bacterial infection, the use of antibiotics to treat the illness was still a ways off. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, it wasn't until the 1940s that antibiotics were used to treat scarlet fever, which was such a serious infection that quarantine notifications were put on doors of the infected. 

In Harlow's case, she recovered, but suffered permanent damage from the infection that would catch up with her when she was still in the prime of her life. 

Jean Harlow's final days and cause of death

Officially, Jean Harlow (born Harlean Carpenter) is said to have died from cerebral edema, or swelling on the brain, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The swelling was caused by the uremic poisoning that happened when her kidneys were no longer functioning, sending the waste that's normally filtered through the kidneys and eliminated in urine into her bloodstream instead, per Healthline

While she was said to have appeared in better health on June 3, 1937, days later on June 6, she went into a coma, ultimately dying the following day.

During her final days, her breath reportedly had an odor, as she was reportedly no longer able to urinate, according to The Atlantic. "It was like kissing a dead person, a rotting person," actor Clark Gable, who appeared in films like "The Secret 6" and "Saratoga" with Harlow, shared after visiting her. She was also said to have appeared larger, as her body held onto water weight.

Jean Harlow had survived multiple serious illnesses

Harlow had already had a tough year by the time she died halfway through 1937. The "Red-Headed Woman" star had had the flu in February and was hospitalized in April after getting her wisdom teeth pulled, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. According to Country Living, her heart briefly stopped beating during the procedure.

Harlow was certainly no stranger to illness. The Atlantic reported Harlow had contracted meningitis and polio before she was 16, and in her adult years, she'd had pneumonia, an appendectomy, had the flu several times, and also had two abortions — before they were performed legally. It's also been said that she had some bouts with binge drinking. 

The Atlantic also questioned how much Harlow's use of chemicals to keep her hair platinum blonde may have strained her already weakened kidneys. "We used peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux flakes! Can you believe that?" hairstylist Alfred Pagano once said. For those who may be unaware, mixing ammonia and bleach creates chloramine gas, which can kill you

In her brief but full life, Harlow had been married three times, according to the official website for Jean Harlow, with her second husband, producer Paul Bern, taking his own life just two months into their marriage. At the time of her death, she'd been dating actor William Powell for two years but they hadn't married, yet the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported he, along with Harlow's mother, were at her bedside when she finally died.