Rabbit Holes is a semi-regular reaction-style series about the baby-related stories I’ve found interesting and think you’ll find interesting too. Let’s get to them!
Table of Contents
Perth’s Baby Farmer
In Perth, Australia in 1909, Alice Mitchell was on trial for the death of one baby but during the proceedings, it was discovered that thirty-seven babies had died in her care. Author Dr Stella Budrikis wrote about the case in her book The Edward Street Baby Farm.
Alice Mitchell was a midwife and a baby-farmer, someone who, for a fee, would take in babies from parents (usually unmarried women) with the understanding that they would be cared for until the parent could return for them or they could be adopted out. Unfortunately, many infants in these situations were neglected and died, and in some cases, were murdered.
Elizabeth Booth became pregnant and was sent to a home for “fallen women,” a dramatic name for the maternity homes that seem to come up in every episode of Rabbit Holes. She gave birth to a daughter, Ethel, in 1906 and put her baby in the care of Alice for 10 shillings a week (2/3s of an average maid’s weekly salary). Soon enough, Elizabeth ran into excuses from Alice about why she couldn’t see Ethel when she came to visit.
By February of 1907, Ethel was sick and the doctor caring for her, Ned Officer, had already written 25 death certificates for babies under Alice’s care without notifying the authorities. At the time, infant mortality was very high in Western Australia, one in six children died before age five. Sadly, Ethel died a week after she was sent to hospital at seven months old.
The police investigated Alice and during a search of her house, they found emaciated babies which were immediately sent to the hospital.
The story of Alice Mitchell horrified the public: she had taken in 42 babies in seven years, 37 of them died but only 25 deaths were certified by a doctor. Alice was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison. Meanwhile the doctor was merely scolded for not notifying the authorities sooner and he went right back to his medical practice.
Budrikis, Stella. 29 Sept 2020. “The Edward Street Baby Farm.” Freemantle Press.
Wayne, Emma. 27 Jan 2021. “How dark world of ‘baby farming’ was exposed in sensational trial that brought lasting change.” Australian Broadcasting Company.
Stonehenge Beaker Baby Burial
Our next story is about Stonehenge. If you aren’t familiar with the site beyond photos you might not know that visitors to Stonehenge can see and hear traffic from the A303. It’s more than a little bit of an eyesore, so construction is underway to drop the highway underground… where all the archaeology is.
For that reason the project is controversial, however, the construction company is working with Wessex Archaeology. New discoveries have been made in the area, including the burial of a baby with a beaker, associated with the Beaker culture which existed from 2800-1800 BCE, near the entrance of the monument. The burial was next to a 4000-year-old burial that included a shale staff or club– which would predate the building of Stonehenge by around 1000 years.
Morris, Steven. 4 Feb 2021. “Archaeologists unearth bronze age graves at Stonehenge tunnel site.” The Guardian.
Dr Elma Brenner, a medieval specialist at the Wellcome Collection wrote an article about medieval childbirth for the BBC’s History Extra. She gives a fairly positive spin on medieval childbirth, which is refreshing. However, it is important to understand that physicians and medicine in the middle ages have very little relation to modern medicine and no relation to science or surgery as we know it today.
Medieval midwives and surgeons were considered lower status than physicians, as practical healthcare providers who got their hands messy; physicians were more intellectually based and very likely had frilly shirt cuffs they wanted to keep clean. Physicians may have recommended bloodletting but a surgeon would be the one cutting and dealing with the blood (ala the barber’s pole’s red stripe). The “medical” books of the middle ages, such as the Trotula, were not new scholarship but copies of earlier, even ancient texts; the scientific method wasn’t invented.
Dr Brenner’s article is chock full of specific examples of childbirth in the middle ages, either individual women’s experiences or the artefacts they left behind. Fascinating reading.
I also recommend checking out the Wellcome Collection’s digital offerings, I often use them for media in my videos as well as for research, there are many historical texts available in full.
Bremmer, Elma. 5 Feb 2021. “The medieval childbirth guide: 6 tips for pregnant mothers in the Middle Ages.” BBC History Extra.
Manitoba Takes an Ojibway Baby
In Canada, a First Nation’s newborn was taken from its parents by the Child and Family Services of Western Manitoba while the mother was still recovering from birth. The reason for the seizure of the infant was allegedly due to the father having ADHD and a nurse was worried about his potential to cause shaken baby syndrome while rocking the baby, she said she heard him mutter something about shaken baby while holding and rocking the baby. If this story is accurate it’s an enraging overreach.
All over the world and throughout history, there is a long history of infants and children of indigenous communities have been taken from their families by a colonial or occupying government, often with the justification of child protection. Much was done in the late 20th century to prevent child protective services from breaking up families, indigenous or not, while still ensuring that infants and children were protected from dangerous situations, but cases like this show that more oversight is needed.
The article explains that the child should never have been taken by Child and Family Services of Western Manitoba but by Dakota Ojibway Child and Family Services, and then only if there was evidence of risk, which could have been determined by providing the family with support instead of snatching their newborn.
Klowak, Marianne. 7 Feb 2021. “First Nations family advocate, chief question why newborns still being apprehended in Manitoba.” CBC News.
Public Health Services. “Provincial and territorial child protection legislation and policy – 2018.” Government of Canada.
NCSL. 3 Nov 2019. “The Child Welfare Placement Continuum: What’s Best for Children?” National Conference of State Legislators.
Vice created a mini-documemtary about how OHSU’s fertility clinic misused donor Bryce Cleary’s sperm. The result was the births of at least 20 people (now young adults) in the immediate area. He is now suing OHSU for $5 million.
When Bryce donated as a young medical student (now a doctor) he was told that his donations would be used for no more than five offspring and that they would be geographically distanced (to hopefully prevent half siblings potentially, you know, hooking up).
As his offspring came of age and started getting into DNA ancestry, they began finding their siblings, more and more and more of their siblings, all fairly local. When they located their donor, Dr Cleary, they explained what they had learned. Now many of them are now supporting his lawsuit and hope to get regulations put into place to protect both donors and the resulting offspring from situations like this.
Vice. 7 Feb 2021. “1 Sperm Donor, 17+ Kids, and a $5M Lawsuit.” YouTube.
Almeling, Rene. 11 Aug 2011. “Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm.” University of California Press.
OSHU Fertility Clinic. 4 Oct 2019. “OHSU statement on anonymous donor sperm services.” Oregon Health and Science University.
Liquid Ventilation for Preemies
The channel Today I Found Out did an episode on whether it was possible for humans to breathe liquid like in the movie The Abyss. Around 7:30 mins in, the host, Simon Whistler, brings up liquid ventilation that was (and still is being) developed to help premature babies breathe.
Premature babies have difficulty breathing because their lungs are underdeveloped, they lack enough pulmonary surfactant to keep their alveoli, or the tiny air sacs in the lungs, open. Therefore they don’t get enough oxygen in and can’t get enough carbon dioxide out. The condition is known as bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD).
Mechanical ventilation has been used for decades but the air pressure of the machines can damage the delicate lungs of a preemie, and is inefficient if the air sacs are collapsed. BPD is the leading cause of death in preemies and those who survive tend to have chronic breathing problems in addition to other issues related to prematurity.
One idea was to flood the lungs with fluid, similar to what they would be experiencing in the womb. In 1989, JS Greenspan (of Temple Hospital in Philadelphia), developed neonatal liquid ventilation, which filled the lungs with liquid that would open alveoli and help with transporting oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. This technique went through multiple tests with preemies, showing marked improvement in blood oxygen. However, the machines used were expensive and impractical. At the same time, in 1991, BP Foreman (?) tested partial liquid ventilation, which combines the alveoli opening properties of liquid ventilation with traditional mechanical ventilation.
Beyond the video, there is another way being tested recently: if I am understanding it correctly, they use an aerosolized liquid, perflourooctyl bromide (PFOB) which doesn’t require any special equipment to administer. The PFOB is put into the regular breathing tube of the mechanical ventilator and after five to ten days the PFOB slowly evaporates from the lungs as the baby transitions back to exclusive mechanical ventilation.
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) started the “Fluid Filled Lung Oxygenation Assistance Trail (FFLOAT)” in 2017, led by Dr William Fox to see if it’s safe and feasible for preemies with severe BPD.
Today I Found Out. 28 Jan 2021. “Can Humans Breathe Liquid Like in The Abyss?” YouTube.
Thomas H. Shaffer, Marla R. Wolfson and Jay S. Greenspan. Dec 1999. “Liquid Ventilation: Current Status.” Pediatrics in Review, 20(12) e134-e142.
Greenspan, Jay S. and Marla R.Wolfson, DavidRubenstein, Thomas H.Shaffer. July 1990. “Liquid ventilation of human preterm neonates.” The Journal of Pediatrics, 117(1:1): 106-111.
CHOP. Undated. “Neonatal Liquid Ventilation.” Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.