Women and Children First

The infants had been arranged into neat rows, swaddled in aseptic white cloth the way precision instruments would be secured for shipping. Masked, hooded and gloved nurses cautiously moved down the aisle to record vital functions and administer bottles of formula, closely adhering to the feeding schedule detailed in their log books. To eliminate the possibility of contamination, any handling of their charges was kept to a minimum and parental visits were strictly forbidden. It was a model of efficiency compromised only by the piercing screams of newborns in distress.

American infant wards in the first half of the 20th century were designed around two prevailing ideas, wrote Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford University neuroscientist, in his book Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals (2005): “a worship of sterile, aseptic conditions at all costs, and the belief among the (overwhelmingly male) paediatric establishment that touching, holding, and nurturing infants was sentimental maternal foolishness”. But there was little doubt at the time that eliminating cross-infection was a medically necessary pursuit.

Well into the 1920s, according to statistics from Bellevue Hospital in New York, an estimated 30 per cent of infants died before they could go home with their mothers. Many more experienced a condition referred to as “hospitalism”, in which extended stays produced infants who were listless, apathetic and refused to eat. It wasn’t until 1941 that New York paediatrician Harry Bakwin, in a paper read before the American Pediatric Society, told a sceptical audience of his peers that they had been deceiving themselves all along: hospitalism was not the result of disease, he said. It was the result of “loneliness”.

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Times Higher Education, March 2012