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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Edward Lasker and the Electric Breast Pump

A pump from around the 1930s
     When Edward Lasker (December 3, 1885 – March 25, 1981) couldn’t find a job in New York he embarked on a simul tour to make money. 
     In Chicago he met Julius Rosenwald, the head of Sears and Roebuck, who hired him as a safety engineer. Lasker worked for Sears between 1915 to 1919 until he was hired by Ernest Gundlach, president of the Chicago Chess Club and owner of a cow milking machine business. 
     Lasker’s job was to engineer improvements and the job required that he work on dairy farms in Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa. 
     Lasker told how he had to get up at 4:30 every day to get his experimental milking machine ready for the morning milking. Then it was breakfast at six and after that he had nothing to do until the evening milking. In between time he helped the farmers take in the hay. 
     In 1921, he got into the business of developing an electric breast pump to secure mother's milk for premature infants too weak to nurse. Lasker claimed it paid five times as much as milking cows. On the down side, he claimed that, “for the next decade or so, I had to put up with friends calling me a chest player.” Lasker’s pioneering work in the field of electric breast pumps was important. 
     An article published by historian Jill Lepore in The New Yorker in 2009 prompted an overwhelming onslaught of commentary from mothers and the media outlets across the country when Lepore asked the question, “If breast is best, why are women bottling their milk?” 
     She received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls in response. Mothers shared their exasperation with the modern-day conflation of breast pumping with breastfeeding...the experience of hooking oneself to an electrical milking machine and breastfeeding are two different things. 
     By the late 1990s, the breast pump had become so common place in feeding a baby breast milk that the technology was not given much thought. By the early 2000s, as breastfeeding activism in the US focused on public breastfeeding and lactation rooms in work places, few took notice of rise of the breast pump.
     It all begged the question, “What, if anything, the breast pump means for the future of breastfeeding in America?” We won’t attempt to answer that question, but only look at Lasker's contibution.
     Prior to the 1920s, the most common methods for extracting breast milk were a nursing infant or manually squeezing the breast by hand. 
     Breast pumps, borne from the same lineage as bloodletting and cupping devices, existed, but they tended to require the same amount of manual labor as squeezing by hand and the results weren’t as good. Even so, extracting the milk by hand was tedious, time-consuming and frequently unpleasant, particularly when done by a caregiver, so pumps did have some advantage.
     The possibility of improving the process began to receive some thought as hospitalized childbirth and care expanded over the first several decades of the twentieth century, leaving hospitals, and particularly nurses, with some women with uncooperative lactating breasts to care for. 
     The most successful electric breast pump emerged in the 1920s out of the collaborative efforts of the chess-playing engineer Edward Lasker and the famous American pediatrician Isaac A. Abt
     Because he had been working for the cow milking machine manufacturer, Lasker had what Abt believed to be the perfect background for designing a pump that could be used on human mothers. Consequently, Abt invited Lasker to build something he could use in his hospital in Chicago for premature infants who were too weak to nurse. 
     Lasker accepted the challenge and in 1923 filed for a patent for an electric breast pump based on his knowledge of cow milking. 
     Within a few years the pump was being featured in articles in nursing journals and discussed in medical textbooks. Lasker recalled in his memoirs that the famous pediatrician, Joseph B. DeLee wrote to tell him that he considered the machine indispensable in any hospital in which maternity work was done.
     Lasker’s work helped move the age-old breast pump into the modern era. At the time, breast pumps were employed as medical devices only and were not designed for the reuse of the milk for feeding to healthy infants. The reason was contamination of the extracted milk presented a problem. 
Early pump ad

     Also, physicians balked at mothers having electric milking machines in the home. A well-known Los Angeles physician named Earl Tarr commented that the electric pump would be found far more useful in the maternity ward of a hospital than elsewhere and they should not be sold to mothers for home use. 
     As might be expected, there were arguments over who would control the things...the medical profession or the business world. Soon after Abt’s Pump entered the medical world, physicians took advantage of the opportunity to put them into use outside the hospital. 
     Dr. Tarr believed there was no such thing as a new-born infant that was physically able, during the first few weeks, to empty a breast and he tried to prove the superiority of Abt’s Pump over the baby in that regard. 
     In a series of clinical experiments performed at the Anita M. Baldwin Hospital for Babies in California, Tarr used the Abt Pump to reestablish milk supplies in mothers who had gone dry and compared the abilities of the pump with that of a baby. He argued that breast milk was superior to modified cow’s milk and the electric breast pump could be used to advantage in that area. 
     Naturally, there were enemies of the electric pump who believed the old-fashioned hand squeezing method was better. It was free, it could be easily learned by any mother, it carried very little risk of contamination, and, by teaching it, doctors and nurses educated women about how their bodies worked.
     In spite of their efforts the breast pump won out. Abt’s Pump meant the United States served as the world’s leading manufacturer of hospital breast pumps until World War II. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, restrictions on trade left many overseas hospitals without a supply of replacement Abt Pumps and parts. 
     As a result a Swedish engineer named Einar Egnell undertook to build a better breast pump. He devoted 3 years to learning all about lactation and experimented with how best to mimic the nursing infant. His eventual success relied greatly upon the assistance of Maja Kindberg, the head nurse at a Stockholm hospital. He went through eight prototypes before coming up with a design that worked. Mothers at the hospital began to demand what became called the Sister Maja Breast pump (or SMB pump) over the existing Abt Pumps because they found it to be more comfortable. 

For further reading: 
200 Years Of Breast Pumps, In 18 Images 
Breast Pumps Throughout History

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