History and Lactivism

I just got back from two days at the National Canadian Lactation Consultants Association conference where I was presenting on some of the work that I did with Aleck Ostry a few years back on the history of breastfeeding in Canada (which is the subject of our book The One Best Way? Breastfeeding History, Politics, and Policy in Canada).

My presentations focused on how breastfeeding practices and trends have been connected to social and political movements and ideologies. One of my talks was on the history of lactivism in Canada. I love the term “lactivism” – a portmanteau of “lactation” and “activism” (see the Urban Dictionary here for more).

The second talk explored the role of science and medicine in shaping breastfeeding practices, both the good and the bad.  I really enjoyed re-visiting this material, especially the story of Dr. Otto Schaefer (1919-2009). Gerald Hankins, who wrote a biography on Schaefer says:

“Dr. Otto Schaefer, born in Germany, spent 32 years of his outstanding medical career in the barren lands of northern Canada, a pioneer of health care for the Inuit. He travelled by dogsled, stayed in igloos in remote Inuit camps, learned the Inuktitut language, ate raw frozen caribou meat, and operated by the light of a seal-oil lamp. His friendship and rapport with the Inuit enabled him to travel the Arctic from the Yukon to Baffin Island, treating sick people and documenting their health problems for the Northern Medical Research Unit.”

In terms of infant feeding, Schaefer had an important role in documenting how traditional practices shifted during a period of enormous social and cultural change in northern Canada and he became an advocate for a number of health issues in the North. I like his story because I think it’s a good example of how one civil servant can make a huge difference.