Crying Over Spilled Milk: Chemistry, Drugs, and Breastfeeding in the Eighteenth Century

Verwaal, R., 23-Jun-2017.

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperAcademic

Breast milk commonly represents the early and intimate mother-infant relationship. Yet the practice of breastfeeding was never self-evident nor static, because the assistance of wet nurses and hand-feeding was popular practice across early modern Europe, for reasons of necessity or convenience. Although historians have already paid ample attention to contemporary debates on the drawbacks and benefits of breastfeeding by mothers and nurses, this paper explores the role of chemists and apothecaries. Throughout the early modern period, physicians published moralising texts to argue in favour of maternal breastfeeding. I will argue, however, that in the eighteenth century chemical experiments on milk supplied Dutch physicians with new arguments to emphasise the exceptional nutritious qualities of milk in general and the importance of mother’s milk to the health of the infant. Herman Boerhaave, for example, perceived the apparently mundane and whitish fluid as a confluence of major physiological functions: secretion, digestion, nutrition, and maturation. Furthermore, physicians and apothecaries were increasingly involved in the evaluation of galactagogues, i.e. the substances stimulating and inducing lactation. While herbal drugs continued to be consumed, mineral drugs were dismissed as spurious and galactagogues based on animal products, such as cow’s milk and cheese, were actively encouraged. Although it appears that many parents at the time continued to make up their own minds concerning nursing their child, this paper demonstrates the various strategies employed by Dutch medical men to negotiate the importance of milk and breastfeeding in the eighteenth century.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 23-Jun-2017
EventHistories of Healthy Ageing - Groningen, Netherlands
Duration: 21-Jun-201723-Jun-2017


ConferenceHistories of Healthy Ageing
Abbreviated titleHHA
Internet address


Histories of Healthy Ageing


Groningen, Netherlands

Event: Conference


  • milk

ID: 41034656