Howard Hughes' Doctor Gives a Chilling Description of His Strange Patient's Final Hours

UPDATED 07/30/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/30/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

Three years after Howard Hughes' death at age 70, his last years as the century's most famous recluse are still clouded by controversy, charge and countercharge. Among other things, it has been suggested that Hughes' heavy use of codeine and Valium brought about his death. Hughes' chief physician, Dr. Wilbur Thain, 53, denies this and now has gone public with the claim that his patient died from prolonged, massive doses of aspirin. Thain, a Mormon like so many of Hughes' associates, was a USC medical student in 1948 when his brother-in-law Bill Gay, who eventually became president of the Summa Corporation, Hughes' holding company, hired him as a secretary-courier. Upon graduation in 1952 Thain declined a job with Hughes and went into private practice. Two decades later he was persuaded to join Hughes' personal medical team and in 1975 became its chief at an annual salary of $60,000. Thain, who pronounced Hughes dead at 1:27 p.m. April 5, 1976 aboard a private plane bound from Acapulco to Houston, has spent much of the last 13 months in court. Last fall a federal jury ruled that the doctor was medically justified in prescribing codeine for Hughes and exonerated him on charges that he had illegally supplied his patient with drugs. Still pending is a suit filed by Hughes' heirs against Thain and other members of the "Mormon Mafia" charging that they conspired to keep Hughes drugged and under their control. Thain and other aides, meantime, have retaliated with a breach-of-contract suit against Summa. These days Thain has a family practice in Logan, Utah, where he specializes in working with retarded children. His legal problems plus speculation in a recent Hughes biography titled Empire that the recluse died from an overdose of codeine prompted Thain to speak out. He first gave an interview to American Medical News, then expanded on it for PEOPLE with Dennis Breo, who is National Affairs editor for that AMA publication.

Why have you decided to end your silence about Howard Hughes?

I want to get this off my chest. I have told these things only to my wife—and my attorney. There has been so much false information about Hughes, so much emphasis on his dying an emaciated old man supposedly bombed out on drugs, that I want to discuss him as I remember him.

Why do you think aspirin caused his death?

He had become very dehydrated and was taking large doses of aspirin—up to 20 to 30 tablets a day. He kept it by his bed and would gulp it down. The combination of the dehydration and the acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) triggered the kidney failure that caused his sudden death. It shocked me. This fatal combination has only recently been reported in medical literature. At the time it was thought that the phenacetin from codeine compounds caused the kidney failure. It is only in the past year that I have been able to explain it. It was the aspirin that killed him.

Then why was no trace of aspirin found during the autopsy?

I was there. Acetylsalicylic acid wasn't found because nobody ever looks for it unless an aspirin overdose is suspected. Hughes did not die of an aspirin overdose—that would require maybe 125 tablets—but rather of a combination of aspirin and severe dehydration.

Was Hughes addicted to codeine?

No. When I began treating him in 1973, he was taking up to 40 tablets a day. I cut his dosage to five. Hughes was not addicted, but he was taking too much for his own good.

Then why did you provide him with it?

He told me he would cut down, but he wanted to get through the pain of having his fractured hip pinned. He broke it in a bathroom fall. Understand now, this man had plenty of reason to be on pain medication. On top of the hip surgery, he had arthritis, severe neuritic pain in the neck, shoulders, arms and chest. He had the worst teeth you've ever seen. He also had severe constipation and hemorrhoids. I thought I was doing the best thing for the man. He was hurting, and if he didn't get codeine he would have gotten something a lot stronger. We were glad to have him on the aspirin because it enabled him to cut back on the codeine.

Was he hooked on anything else?

The only other drug he took was Valium, and I had cut him down to six 10-milligram tablets per week. When he died, there was a bottle with 40 or 50 tablets left over, so he was taking very little.

Are you satisfied that Hughes received adequate medical attention?

Everything possible was done to help Hughes in his final hours. At no time did the authors of Empire try to get in touch with me. Yet they say in the book that an aviator friend of Hughes called me in Logan, Utah two days before Hughes' death and told me, "I don't want to play doctor, but your patient is dying." I am quoted as telling the guy to mind his own business, since I had to go to a party in the Bahamas. Well, the first word I actually got that Hughes was in trouble was about 9 p.m. April 4, 1976—the night before he died. I was in Miami at the time—not Utah. At about midnight I was called and told that Hughes had suddenly become very critical. I was stunned. I left Miami at 3:30 a.m., arriving in Acapulco at 8 a.m. April 5.

What was the first thing you did?

Empire says the first thing I did was spend two hours shredding documents in Hughes' rooftop suite at the Acapulco Princess. This is absolutely false. I walked straight into Hughes' bedroom with my medical bag. He was unconscious and having multiple seizures. He looked like he was about to die. Other than one trip to the bathroom, I spent the next four hours with him.

Why did you then fly to Houston?

The Mexican physician who had seen Hughes advised against trying to take him to a local medical center, so we spent two hours trying to find an oxygen tank that didn't leak and preparing the aircraft to fly us to Houston. We left at noon. He died en route.

Was Howard Hughes psychotic?

No, not at any time in his life. He was severely neurotic, yes. To be psychotic means to be out of touch with reality. Howard Hughes may have had some fanciful ideas, but he was not out of touch with reality. He was rational until the day he died.

Was Hughes an impossible patient?

That's a masterpiece of understatement. He wanted doctors around, but he didn't want to see them unless he had to. He would allow no X-rays—I never saw an X-ray of Hughes until after he died—no blood tests, no physical exams. He understood his situation and chose to live the way he lived. Rather than listen to a doctor, he would fall asleep or say he couldn't hear.

Is that why you didn't accept his job offer after you got out of medical school?

No, I just wanted to practice medicine on my own. I understand that Hughes was quite upset. I didn't see him again for 21 years. He was 67 then. He had grown a beard, his hair was longer. He had some hearing loss partially due to his work around aircraft. That's why he liked to use the telephone: It had an amplifier. He was very alert and well-informed. His toenails and fingernails were pretty long, but he had a case of onchyomycosis—a fungus disease of the nails which makes them thick and very sensitive. It hurt like hell to trim them. For whatever reason, he only sponge-bathed his body and hair.

What was the turning point?

After his successful hip surgery in August of 1973 he chose never to walk again. Once—only once—he walked from the bedroom to the bathroom with help. That was the beginning of the end for him. I told him we'd even get him a cute little physical therapist. He said, "No, Wilbur, I'm too old for that."

Why did he decide not to walk?

I never had the chance to pry off the top of his head to see what motivated decisions like this. He would never get his teeth fixed, either. Worst damn mouth I ever saw. When they operated on his hip, the surgeons were afraid his teeth were so loose that one would fall into his lung and kill him!

What kinds of things did he talk about toward the end of his life?

The last year we would talk about the Hughes Institute medical projects and his earlier life. All the reporting on Hughes portrayed him as a robot. This man had real feelings. He talked one day about his parents, whom he loved very much, and his movies and his girls. He said he finally gave up stashing women around Hollywood because he got tired of having to talk to them. In our last conversation, he told me how much he still loved his ex-wife Jean Peters. But he was also always talking about things 10 years down the road. He was an optimist in that sense. If it hadn't been for the kidney failure, Hughes might have lasted a lot longer.

Do you have any regrets?

Sure, sure. I wish I could have treated him the way I wanted: Fix his teeth—that would have been Number One. It would have helped his diet. I wish I could have treated him just like any patient in a county hospital who comes in with a broken hip, bad teeth and rundown health. At the end Hughes was shrunken, wasted—he was 6'1" and weighed 93 pounds. When his kidneys failed in Acapulco, a major medical center like Houston was the only hope. But knowing Hughes, he would have refused to be placed on dialysis. He always said, "I don't want to be kept alive by machines." Howard Hughes was still imposing that tremendous will of his—right up to the last.

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