Monday, February 8, 2010

"Modified Milk" and Lower East Side Dispensaries

When was the technology necessary to pasteurize milk made available in New York City?

Although New York City did not make pasteurizing milk mandatory until 1912, city residents had access to milk made safe by the technology almost two decades earlier. The doctor Henry Koplik's research in bacteriology led him to open a milk dispensary on the Lower East Side in 1889, probably the first in the nation. Philanthropist Nathan Strauss founded an early infant milk depot in 1893 on the East Third Street Pier. In response to high demand, subsequent depots were opened, including those in Tompkins Square Park and Seward Park on the Lower East Side.

According to a December 8, 1901 New York Times article (pdf), "a milk laboratory may be likened to a pharmacy where a supply of the finest drugs obtainable is kept on hand, to be combined in any variety or quantity as the prescriptions of physicians may demand." Sometimes milk was mashed with bread or jam, as "prescribed" by the doctor.

At the sterilization labs, milk was heated to 157 degrees Fahrenheit for twenty-five minutes and then rapidly cooled to 40 degrees. This process, Strauss’ doctors claimed, “kills all noxious germs and preserves the nutritious quality.”

The 1901 Times article mentions the costliness of this milk, "from $6 a month at the beginning" of a baby's life to close to $25 as he or she grew older and ate more. Dispensaries set up amongst the poor to provide medical care started offering this modified milk free or at a low cost. The Good Samaritan Dispensary at 75 Essex Street housed one such facility. Dubbed a "modified milk laboratory," it claimed to be "the first in the country to engage in the preparation of sterilized or modified milk for the children of the poor." (NYT, 5/12/1899)

Bringing milk to the children of the Lower East Side proved invaluable to their overall health, especially in the summertime, when food easily spoiled. An 1897 article describes this work as "an absolute necessity, and an incalculable boon to poor mothers who formerly were unable to procure safe food for children in hot weather."

The Good Samaritan Dispensary, formerly known as the Eastern Dispensary, was at the forefront of providing child health services to the working poor. Although Eastern Dispensary doctors had been working in the neighborhood since 1832, the operation received some much needed support in the 1880s, which seems to have led to its eventual name change.

Upon her death in 1882, a Miss Sarah Burr donated roughly $3 million dollars to various charities. In her will she earmarked $200,000 for "the founding and support of a dispensary in the City of New York, to be called 'The Good Samaritan Dispensary,' for the purpose of giving medical aid and advice to the indigent in the city of New York." (British Medical Journal, 4/29/1882).

Although nephews and nieces attempted to make this will null and void by reason of infirmary (apparently Miss Burr was a bit senile in her old age - in court testimony, witnesses stated she would often forget who they were or forget to pay them for services, and that her dress was "untidy"), in December, 1883, the judge ruled in favor of the various hospitals and charities, and the money was distributed according to the original will. In 1890, a cornerstone for a new building was laid near the site of the Eastern Dispensary (more on that building's history tomorrow).

The doctor Henry Koplik was instrumental in bringing safe milk to the neighborhood. Born in New York in 1859, Koplik was educated here and in Europe and in 1887 became Attending Physician at the new Good Samaritan Dispensary. He specialized in pediatric medicine and bacteriological research and went on to spend most of his career at Mt. Sinai Hospital. According to his 1927 obituary, "the fundamental subjects on hygiene and child welfare occupied much of his thought."

On January 1, 1912, a new ordinance went into effect requiring all milk sold in the city to be pasteurized and to be marked as such (as today, debates raged among the scientific communities, farmers, and doctors about the potential loss of nutrients from pasteurization - after 1906, it was illegal to sell pasteurized milk without it being so labeled, so that the consumer understood what they were purchasing). Death rates among children and infants dropped in the coming years, and no doubt more stringent regulations in the food production industry (along with improved technology and other sanitary reforms) helped to make this possible.

The clinic closed in 1955/56, and the building sat empty for a number of years. Tomorrow, more on the history of 75 Essex Street, including the history of Eisner Brothers, the business which has occupied the building since 1971.

(Top: June 22, 1897 New York Times article. Courtesy The New York Times Archive. Above: Dr. Koplik. Public Domain)

- Posted by Kate Stober, with thanks to Dave Favaloro

1 comment:

  1. Readers might also be interested in this post from our blog, Brooklynology, on the link between distilling and the swill milk trade.


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