and then there were eight

Wetnurses, that is.

An undated letter in the Fonds Tissot recounts the sorry tale of a 22 month old who contracted syphilis from one of his wetnurses. Wetnurse number 1 lasted 22 days, before the baby boy was struck with stomach pains and green bowel movements. The second lasted 8 or 9 months and was let go when the child came down with an infection. The third was discharged two months later. And then we come to the fourth. She was found to have syphilis and only stayed eight days. You’d have thought that was too little time to pass on any infection, but it was not to be: the infant was soon covered in small blisters, which caused much suffering. Wetnurses 5 and 6 could not solve the problem. Under wetnurse 5’s care, the infant did not urinate for 12 hours. Under Wetnurse 6, he developed a sort of cradle cap which was very itchy and caused the infant much distress. But there were other problems with #6. She didn’t appear to have enough milk and the child suckled for hours on end. Wetnurse 7 gave so much milk that she fell ill. And now, finally, there were 8.

After this long narrative of hirings and firings, I really want to know what happened to nurse 8. Was she replaced by 9, 10, 11…. when the going got tough?  Or did things start to improve for the child, thus securing nurse 8’s  employment with this family? If this narrative tells us anything, it is that wetnursing was a profoundly insecure profession. Any issue experienced by the child – from the green bowel movements (relatively common in newborns), to a form of cradle cap, to milk supply…. and  syphilis … were cause for immediate dismissal. And there appears to have been little consideration given to the possibility that the midwife herself could contract syphilis from the child.

And what happened to the child? At the end of the letter, we learn that he has continued to grow and that he has four teeth. Did he manage to develop beyond the age of five? Did he grow into an adult?


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