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Perthe's Disease

Perthe's Disease and Bruce McLaren

Growing up, Bruce was a fairly typical New Zealand boy with a healthy appetite for sport and the outdoors. That all changed suddenly for him at the age of nine when he “felt pain in [his] left hip and developed a bit of a limp.” The initial diagnosis was polio, but when treatment for that did not work x-rays were taken and the McLaren family were introduced to Perthe’s disease.

Perthe’s disease affects the top of the thighbone where it meets the hip bone. Or as Bruce the mechanic put it, “This ball-and-socket joint, Bruce at the Wilson Homelike any other bearing, will seize up if it is allowed to run dry” which the doctor’s said at the time “could have happened after a heavy fall which affected lubrication of the hip joint.”

The truth is, doctor’s still don’t know what causes Perthe’s disease, but they do know that rather than being a lubrication problem as Bruce put it, what actually occurs is the blood supply to the top of the thighbone (Bruce’s ball, in his ball-and-socket) becomes inadequate, which causes the bone to soften and break down.

With rest the blood supply is able to recover and the bone reforms and hardens. This can take 18 to 36 months, and may lead to a deformed shape of the ball shaped head of the thigh bone. Such was the case with Bruce McLaren, who would have a permanent limp due to his left leg being slightly shorter than his right.

Debilitating as this terrible condition was for Bruce McLaren, it had a profoundly positive affect on his life. His elder sister Pat attributes the compassion and understanding Bruce had to the ordeal that the disease put him through. While Bruce himself mentions the affect it had on focusing his mind. “Not many twelve-year-olds like school,” writes Bruce in From the Cockpit, “but without distractions such as rugby and swimming, I found myself absorbed in studies.”

When Bruce enrolled in an engineering course at college he was placed in the “A” class, which he “regarded as a seat of much higher learning than [he] would ever reach.” He never believed he would stay there, but once tests showed him to be 2nd in his class he figured he was there to stay, and Bruce the designer was born.

More Information

Perthe’s disease affects 1 in 20,000 children typically between the ages of four and eight, and is five time more likely to affect boys. For more information about Perthe’s disease, please visit



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