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Childhood in Rostock, on the Baltic Coast, as seen through the Lens of the Enlightenment and Rationalist Medical Science (1807)

This vivid picture of health conditions and material life among the common people of Rostock reflects close observation and a strong commitment to social progress. Yet the author, A.F. Nolde, could not escape the grip of his age’s preoccupation, among the educated classes, with the dangers – physical, sexual, and psychic – of wet-nursing. This concern reflected preconceived notions about the moral imperfections of the culture of the poor.

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Medical-Anthropological Observations about Rostock and its Inhabitants (1807)

A. F. Nolde

[ . . . ]

The fact that, after subtracting twin births, the number of persons who have died in childbirth is 1 to 78 1/7, and with respect to the total of all deaths about 1 to 64, is indeed crushing. The reason for this can be found nowhere else than in the neglected or wrong treatment of the women in labor or in childbed. [ . . . ]

Before turning to another matter, I would like to add quite a few things about the physical constitution of the children, [ . . . ] In this context, I distinguish quite consciously the children born into a lawful marriage from the illegitimate ones. Indisputably, in the physical constitution of the latter and in their treatment lies the reason for the great mortality among them, and it is certainly significant enough to have an adverse effect overall. I believe to be able to assume without reservations that barely one fourth of them reach the end of the initial childhood years. The mothers impregnated out of wedlock are mostly from the lower classes. These usually seek services as wet nurses in order to avoid losing any livelihood altogether: for their lovers either do not give them enough to enable them to live on it with their child, or they probably outright desert the poor woman, whom they have assured marriage or given other promises. Thus, the mother accommodates her child with other people, putting it, as the phrase goes here, either ‘on the breast’ or ‘on the spoon.’ In the former case, the substitute mother breastfeeds her own child at the same time, and naturally she nurses the other child only once her own is already satisfied. [ . . . ] If, however, such a child is put only on the spoon, it will only receive the food just mentioned [potatoes as well as flour and water porridge]. [ . . . ] Added to this is, in most cases, a high degree of filth and uncleanliness that spoils everything completely. [ . . . ] Most of the time, they get bloated bellies with constipation or foul smelling and exhausting diarrheas; they waste away to skeletons in their faces, on their arms and legs; they scream and whimper incessantly, so you would have to be made of stone not to feel moved deeply by such a pitiful and miserable sight. [ . . . ] However, indifferent mothers like these do not see such a thing; otherwise they would impossibly prefer comfort and amusement over the sweet mother’s duty to nurse her own children.

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