September 7, 2011

Good medicine

Lucky for little Edith Eleanor McLean that her parents were immigrants – from Scotland we can assume – because when she was born prematurely in 1888 and weighed but 2 pounds and 7 ounces, she became the first preemie in the United States to be put into an incubator.

Incubator, ca. 1909

Edith and her mother were treated at the new hospital for immigrants that had been built on Ward’s Island in the East River some twenty years earlier – you can read about the laying of the cornerstone in the New York Times of 1864. It replaced an earlier facility constructed in 1847.

(The hospital was called the State Emigrant Hospital – apparently it was felt that the new arrivals, while clearly emigrants from their native countries, were not yet officially immigrants to the U.S.)

In any event, the government was extremely proud of the new facility – Comm. Verplanck pointed out the new building would feature all “the great improvements in practical sanitary science, in connection with hospital buildings, which had taken place within the last few years, such as fresh air, exposure to light, liberal supplies of water for every purpose, thorough sewerage, and construction of buildings, preventing the spreading of infection, and adding, at the same time, to the cure of disease beyond the most sanguine medical calculations.”

Ward's Island

The doctor in charge, Dr. William Champion Deming, was the first American M.D. to try the method created and improved upon by the French some 30 years earlier.  French doctors were desperate to save premature babies, because the birth rate in France had fallen precipitously after the Napoleonic Wars. Dr. Deming seems to have been aware of their work and had an incubator constructed for tiny Edith, heated with a 15-gallon reservoir of warm water.  At that point, Edith McLean disappears from history – we can only hope she continued to thrive.

And not much is available about Dr. Deming,  In fact, what there is  comes from the obituary of his son Olcott –  Olcott was one of the seven sons of the doctor and his wife Imogen, a granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Olcott was born in 1909 and died in 2007.

* * *

George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon was born on this date in 1707 and if ever a man found his niche in life, it was Buffon.  In 1739, he was named head of the King’s Garden – the Jardin des Plantes – and stayed there happily for the rest of his life, nearly 50 years.

Buffon was already a respected scientist and mathematician when he got the job, but once there he proceeded to create his 36-volume Natural History.  Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr said of Buffon that his work was read by every educated person in Europe and while Buffon “was not an evolutionist, yet he was the father of evolutionism. He was the first person to discuss a large number of evolutionary problems, problems that before Buffon had not been raised by anybody…. he brought them to the attention of the scientific world.

“Except for Aristotle and Darwin, no other student of organisms [whole animals and plants] has had as far-reaching an influence.”

Jardin des Plantes

Buffon wrote so much over such a long period of time that he often contradicted himself, which makes it difficult to sum him up neatly.  He did however stick to his conviction that the earth was much older than generally thought – when he got into trouble with the church, he retracted his statements publicly, but failed to change his published work.

One opinion he did change.  He asserted the superiority of the Old World over the New, claiming American species were inferior and no very large and ‘majestic’ creatures existed.  That enraged Thomas Jefferson, who sent soldiers into northern New Hampshire to get a bull moose, which was then sent to Buffon.  The count admitted his error.



  1. Love this blog! How would I ever know how much our pasts invent and create our presents? Get to know Buffon, Demmings and how care for premature babies was created!!??


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — September 7, 2011 @ 10:25 am | Reply

  2. Wondering where the word buffoon came from. It is French and the inventor was made fun of at one time.Hmmm. Also, you gotta love Jefferson no matter what bad things you’ve heard.


    Comment by Carol — September 7, 2011 @ 12:41 pm | Reply

  3. correction: evolution/botanical guy rather than inventor.


    Comment by Carol — September 7, 2011 @ 12:44 pm | Reply

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