Fillers How medicine has changed

Mother's milk

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: (Published 11 March 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:691
  1. Gordon M Black, physician
  1. Pembroke, Bermuda

    I was due to give a talk entitled “Changes in medicine in 43 years of practice” when I attended the funeral of a patient a few weeks before the presentation. She was a sweet old lady of 96 years who had borne 10 children, and the church was filled to capacity—there were three generations of her family present. An elderly clergyman gave one of the eulogies He related how as a young boy in the 1920s and 1930s he had been a next door neighbour of Ma Smith. In those days, he said, “We didn't have cars, or fridges, or telephones, we never went to the doctor—he didn't have antibiotics or any of the other wonderful medications they have now, and we didn't have health insurance. We only saw the doctor for a broken bone or if dying. Doctors in those days prescribed mustard poultices or the like and Mother knew all about those. One day I got a sore eye. Mother said it was ‘pink eye’ and it needed warm milk applications. Sometimes we did not have the basics, and at the time we had no milk, so she sent me next door to see Ma Smith. I knocked on her door and when she came I told her my problem. She said, “Look up and hold your eye open child.” I did so and she took out her breast and gave me a squirt.”

    Ma Smith's treatment may have been soundly based. Breast milk contains a range of antimicrobial proteins, including immunoglobulins, lysozyme, and lactoferrin. Professor John Davis pointed this out to me 37 years ago, noting that West Indian mothers at Hammersmith Hospital frequently treated neonatal sticky eye with breast milk. Roger Robinson BMJ.

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