Of milk and honey

There hardly goes a week without a newsreport on breatsmilk and/or breastfeeding. This week we are told that giving some formula during the first few days of a baby’s life will boost chances of breastfeeding for the recommended six-month period. Then there are the reports that breastmilk reduces risks of infections, allergies, and that breasfed babies have an higher IQ than formula-fed babies. Unfortunately the way this research is reported in the mainstream press often leads mums to feel utterly guilty: utterly guilty when they have failed to breastfeed (usually because of a lack of support) and utterly guilty when they have managed to breastfeed and do not want to appear smug with their perfect, infection-free, allergy-free, free-range babies (says the mother of a baby who was exclusively breast-fed for five months and a half, but still managed to get covered in eczema and develop childhood ashthma the minute he put solid food to his mouth). 

A woman nursing her baby son. Sarcophagus of M. Cornelius Statius. Second Century CE. Roman. Le Louvre

A woman nursing her baby son. Sarcophagus of M. Cornelius Statius. Second Century CE. Roman. Le Louvre

In addition to the issues with the mainstream press, I have always felt somewhat uneasy with the findings of research into breastfeeding. I never was able put my finger on what exactly was bothering me until I read The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (8th edition), the guide produced by La Leche League International. Besides being a mine of information this is a very good read and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in breastfeeding. Here it what it has to say about research in breastfeeding.

“None of it is true! Here’s why: Let’s say we’re testing a new drug. We focus on the people who get the drug, with a group of ordinary people to compare them with. That’s how we know what the drug did. It made things better or worse than normal. Accurate science focuses on the experiment, not the normal thing. Now think about most of the research on breastfeeding. Excatly – it’s research on breastfeeding! And that means that virtually all our recent research was done backward, evaluating what’s normal (breastfeeding) instead of evaluating the experiment (formula). It makes the high rates of formula-fed illness seem like normal baby health and breastfeeding seem like bonus points.” (p. 9)

Of course most researchers are doing their research honestly and in good faith, but they cannot apply the normal rules of medical research (the control group etc.). Maybe this is a place for collaboration between medical researchers and historians, as the healing properties of breastmilk were well-known in antiquity. In his chapter on the properties of various milks, Dioscorides (first century CE) writes that:

The milk of a woman is extremely sweet and nutritive. Suckled it helps against gnawing of the belly and phthisis (a type of wasting disease). It is also good to give against poisoning with sea-hare. Mixed with powdered frankincense, it is instilled in eyes that are bloody because of a blow; and applied as a cerate with hemlock, it helps those affected with gout. (Dioscorides, De materia medica 2.70.6)

A nursing woman. Sixth century BCE. Cyrpus. Metropolitan Muesum of Art 74.21.2526.

A nursing woman. Sixth century BCE. Cyrpus. Metropolitan Muesum of Art 74.21.2526.

Several points are worth noting here. First, Dioscorides (like other ancient authors) recognizes that human milk has some characteristics in common with other milks, but adds that it has some particularities of its own that make it fit to use in some treatments. Second, he is not talking about the care of the newborn here: he is talking about afflictions that can affect people at any age. Third, he recommends to use the milk in two different ways: ingested and applied. When the milk is to be ingested, it has to be suckled – it has to come directly from the source (thēlazomenon). Galen (second century CE) also recommends warm, fresh milk, and adds that:

One must in the first instance use the milk of a woman who is healthy and well-fed, for it is most suited to the human body; the second choice is that of all the other animals who have much in common with the human nature.  (Galen, On the properties of Simples 12.265)

Thus breastmilk is good for humans because it is suited to the human nature – Simples! Breastmilk appears in numerous ancient pharmacological recipes: in remedies for uterine afflictions, for ophtalmological problems, for ear infections, heart disease, against poisoning, for bellyaches, etc. Some rare recipes recommend the milk of a newborn; and others recommend the milk of a woman who has had a male child. In any case, there is a sense that human milk is an easily-available ingredient. In fact, in a treatise on how to substitute ingredients attributed to Galen, human milk is recommended when egg whites are not available! 

I will devote another post to this topic next week, as I want to look as some recipes in more detail (and maybe even try one or two), but I leave you with this:

The milk of a woman instilled helps the horse who has ingested henbane; and so does the milk of an ass, also taken warm (Hippiatric treatise of Cambridge, 71, 21).

Yes you are reading correctly: the milk of a woman is given to a horse. How things have changed…

This entry was posted in History of gynaecology, History of medicine, History of veterinary medicine and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Of milk and honey

  1. Filomena's Tales says:

    I really enjoyed reading this and it’s a fascinating topic to learn more about the medicinal uses of breastmilk throughout history and the changes in perception over time.
    In Italy still today you can at times overhear a grandmother suggesting to her daughter- in-law to find a friend who is nursing who can lend you some breastmilk to help fight your 3 year old daughter’s ear infection by pouring it – or even nurse directy – into her ear. And this conversation could be very nonchalant at the dinner table!


    • Thanks ‘Filomenastales’ for sharing this. Here in the UK midwives do still recommend using breastmilk to heal babies’ weeping eyes or to apply on cracked nipples. I had never heard of breastmilk still being used for ear infections!


  2. Filomena's Tales says:

    Yes, I’m not sure how often it is really followed as advice, but it’s interesting. I’ve heard strange things too here on the topic. One even last week was that a woman my husband knows of got a fractured rib because of breastfeeding, that the baby consumed all her calcium and made her bones weak, thus fracturing. I’m not a doctor, but I had never heard of such a thing?!


  3. Pingback: Curdled Milk in the Breast | The Recipes Project

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