The invention of infant formula wasn't all that altruistic

If you were thinking that infant formula was invented to prevent babies from starving whose mothers had died or weren't able to produce enough milk you're going to be disappointed.

The first surrogate for human milk was developed in 1865 by Justus von Liebig, who was a professor for chemistry at the university of Munich, Bavaria, at that time. Thanks to his reputation "Liebig's Soup" as it was called quickly became very popular. It was a powder that had to be soluted in cold water and was then cooked. You could buy it in tins at a pharmacy of your choice or make it yourself as the recipe was no secret. Its main ingedients were wheat flower, malt, and potash. Soon a wide variety of surrogates based on Liebig's Soup entered the market. They were commonly known as Kindermehl (flower for children) and sold as food for weaning. Depending on how thick you prepared the product it could be fed as gruel or porridge. It was not meant for babys in the first three months of life.

Most companies that produced and sold Kindermehl have long since been forgotten even though they had been very successful back in the day. Manufactureres like Timpe, Liebe, Wiedemann, Loeslund, Opel, and Kufeke marketed their products as nutritional supplements. While the main focus was on weaning, consumers were told these powders could be used to nurse people of all ages back to health.

In 1868 pharmacist, inventor, and salesman Henri Nestlé started selling his own version of formula. The main difference to Liebig's Soup was the addition of condensed cows milk. Nestle tested his formula as standalone food for newborn babies by fostering two infants. One of them allegedly was a premature baby that he saved from starvation. In any case he used this story to market his product as complete food for infants and explicitly as "mother's milk substitute". And it sold. By 1872 Nestle was distributing his Kindermehl worldwide. By the time he retired and sold his company in 1875 he was a rich man. 

At this point we have to ask ourselves how a product that was presumably invented as a life saver for infants that weren't breast fed could stem a market with dozens of producers making some of them very rich in a very short time. It doesn't add up that these products were only used in cases where the mother had died or didn't have enough milk herself. 

Bavaria counted 1236 deaths related to complications in pregnancy, birth, or laying-in period in 1871; 1659 in 1875; 1139 in 1880 according to Bayerisches Ärzteblatt. That's 6-8 maternal deaths per 1,000 births, and many other countries had similar rates. That's a lot, but not nearly enough to make a huge profit.

Does that mean that large numbers of mothers were unable to breastfeed? Physically, no. Even the most generous estimates never exceeded 5%, with most sources claiming 2-3% of mothers unable to breastfeed. We can only rely on estimation here as it is impossible to determine if a person really, really, really couldn't possibly breastfeed. It is also patronizing.

What we can say with certainty is that mothers just didn't breastfeed. Whether to breastfeed or not was a question of class and -more importantly- region. Upper classes had wet nurses, which by the turn of the centrury were being replaced by expensive formula. Middle classes generally did breastfeed, but as not doing so became a sign of wealth did so less and less. In 1883 Nestle's Kindermehl was considered to be expensive at 1.35 Mark per tin containing 500g of powder(1). That's 9.86 Euro in 2020 (source). Breastfeeding rates in Berlin declined drastically from 50.7% in 1890, to 43.1% in 1895, and 32.5% in 1900(2), while only 15% of infants were being breastfed in Munich in 1883(1).

For labourers during the industrialisation working conditions were so poor that they had to leave even the youngest children with family or strangers. They weren't able to breastfeed because they had to work and simply couldn't be with their children during the day.

Most people in the late 1800s worked on farms though. While farmers in -say- Saxony or Prussia usually took their children with them to the fields in baskets or even baby carriers, farmers in Bavaria or Switzerland left them at home with grandparents or other household members. The two defining reasons for this being the landscape and inheritance rights. 

You don't necessarily want to carry your baby up and down the mountains if you don't have to. Adding the fact that they would need constant supervision by an adult who comes along just for this purpose you might as well just leave them at home, because anyone who is strong enough to come to the field with you to help with the kids you'd rather have helping in the field.

In most parts of Saxony farms were usually inherited by the youngest son; sometimes by the youngest daughter if she didn't have brothers or they had already married into another farm. With the wedding the young couple took over the farm from the parents. Whereas in Bavaria and Prussia the oldest son would inherit the farm. When he was of marrying age the parents weren't ready to retire yet. So his bride didn't have much say in how the farm was run. She didn't get to choose whether to breastfeed or not. Her labour was needed more than her milk.

By the mid-1800s breastfeeding in these parts was frowned upon. Mothers thought it beneath them. They fed their children diluted cows milk, goats milk, gruel, and a variety of other home made mixes. The consequences were dire for the children as the mortality rates showed. The following numbers are from the early 1880s and show deaths in children under 1 year old(1).

Geneva  12.5 %
London 17 %
Paris 17.5 %
Prussia 18 %
Saxony 18.1 %
Berlin 24 %
Frankfurt/Main 24 %
Bavaria 31.54-33.48 %
Württemberg  31.2-40.8 %
southern parts of Württemberg 49.9 %
southern Bavaria 50 %

These mortality rates were alarming to doctors. Relentlessly they tried to make mothers breastfeed. The methods they used were mainly patronising though. They didn't help mothers to breastfeed. Nor did they try to make it appealing to them. Instead they told them breastfeeding was their duty and if they only tried hard enough every mother could breastfeed at least partially. Denying the child the breast was berated as being selfish or ignorant. 

Maybe instead of inventing reasons why many mothers didn't breastfeed they should have looked at why others did breastfeed. Then they might have been able to recreate these conditions for more families. But in a strongly hierachial patriarchy that was probably asking too much. They don't want to lift women up after all, but simply tell them what to do.

This is the situation von Liebig and Nestle found themselves in in the 1860s. Only a small number of women around them actually breastfed. Von Liebig acknowledged this fact and tried to create a substitute that was better than what babies were usually fed. This was only one aspect of his research though and he left it to others to develop the product further. Paediatricians warned mothers not to use any kind of Kindermehl as a breast milk substitute until well into the 1920s. It may have been better than using cows milk, but it was still not adequate food for small babies. It might have been a life saver for some, but the ultimate life saver was still human milk (as well as better hygiene and advances in medicine). Basic ingredients like vitamins were still missing from infant formula in the 1980s.

Nestle on the other hand wasn't a scientist. He was an inventor and he wanted to make money. While he surely wanted babies to be healthy depite not being breast fed, he was mainly drawn to developing a product for them because he saw a market. 

(1) Das Buch von der gesunden und kranken Frau, Dr. med. Ernst Kormann, 1883
(2) Die sozialen Ursachen der Säuglingssterblichkeit, Gustav Temme, 1908

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