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History of Prematurity in the Early 1900's

Dr. William Silverman's "Incubator-Baby Side Shows" Pediatrics 1979; 64:127-141. Dr. Silverman recounts the fascinating history of premature babies in incubators who were exhibited at World's Fairs beginning in the late 19th century. An aspiring young actor named Archibald Leach worked as a barker outside one of these exhibits ("Don't pass the babies by!"). He later acheived fame under his stage name -- Cary Grant.

At the Chicago World's Fair in 1933-4, the premature baby exhibit was next to the midway where Sally Rand and her fan dancers were performing. When police raided Sally Rand's show she protested that her girls were wearing much more in the way of clothes than those babies next door. The article has *wonderful* pictures of very tiny preemies with their parents, nurses, doctors; it also shows old incubators, and various caregiving techniques including a very scary picture of "nasal spoon feeding."

Another interesting article is by Dr. Jeffrey Baker "The Incubator Controversy: Pediatricians and the Origins of Premature Infant Technology in the United States, 1890 to 1910" Pediatrics 1991;87:654-662. Dr. Baker explains why many physicians and parents at first rejected the use of incubators (developed in France) because they considered them to be unhygienic and because most parents (who gave birth at home) were reluctant to entrust their babies to doctors for hospital care.

However, I have an article from the San Francisco Chronicle of 1902 entitled "What Becomes of the Incubator Babies?" that is far more upbeat about the use of incubators. It begins: "Nine years ago one of the curiosities of the World's Fair at Chicago was a baby incubator in full operation, taking care of a prematurely born baby, one of those helpless little changelings brought into the world alive and breathing, yet before its time. It was exhibited as a curiousity, a thing of wonder. Today, to raise a prematurely born baby without the assistance of an incubator would be like dressing a wound without antiseptic precaution. The change measures the swift movement of scientific improvements in this day and age of the world..."

P.S. At least some babies in the 1940s were fed breastmilk, but moms were still not allowed in to hold or touch their babies -- unlike in the late 1800s and early 1900s when both breastfeeding and full maternal care were often encouraged -- with good results.

Helen Harrison is the well known author of The Premature Baby Book, often referred to as the "Bible of Prematurity" by older preemie parents. These observations are excerted with permission from posts to the prematurity parents support internet mailing lists on prematurity: Preemie-child and Preemie-L.

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