During the opening plenary at the Black Mother's Breastfeeding Association's third annual conference, I learned about the Fultz Quads, quadruplet girls born to a tenant farmer named Pete and his deaf, mute wife Annie Mae on May 23, 1946. I'm not sure how I'd never learned about this important piece of African-American history, but I'm happy to be able to share it with you, in case you've never heard of them either.
You can imagine the chances of a couple conceiving quadruplets in the 40s, decades before the availability of fertility treatments, and the fact that the family was poor and black made this a sensational story that garnered nation-wide media attention. The Fultz's already had six children at home when Annie Mae headed to the hospital to give birth to her babies.
The white doctor who delivered the quads, Fred Klenner, gained world renown for attending the birth of the first recorded set of black quadruplets. Dr. Klenner decided to name the girls himself, calling them Mary Ann, Mary Louise, Mary Alice and Mary Catherine. All of the names were for women in his family. The black delivery nurse was quoted in a newspaper article as saying, "At that time, you know, it was before integration. They did us how they wanted. And these were very poor people. He was a sharecropper, Pete was, and she couldn't read or write."
As much of a media circus as the girls' birth was, it seems no one wanted in on the action more than the infant formula companies, whose business was exploding due to the post-war baby boom. In addition to making the girls guinea pigs for his "Vitamin C therapy," Dr. Klenner also negotiated a deal with the PET milk company, which agreed to provide the girls with formula, food, medical care, a private nurse and a farm when they reached adulthood, in exchange for using their image in promotional materials.
This is the beginning of the aggressive marketing of infant formula to African-Americans in this country. Surely the wife of a poor sharecropper would have breastfed her children had PET not come into the picture. And of course black women were breastfeeding their children at this time because they really had no choice. Formula would not have been an affordable or viable option for most people. So although white women were turning to formula in droves, the formula companies were missing a huge portion of the market because black women were still breastfeeding. So how do you change their minds? The image of four beautiful black baby girls "growing up strong" on formula was probably pretty convincing.
The images of the girls as they grew up could be found in ads in black interest publications like Ebony. They even made the cover when they turned one.
But what were the consequences of being fed "baby milk" in infancy? Well, the three eldest of the Fultz quads were all dead of breast cancer before they reached age 55. The youngest sister, Mary Catherine, also has breast cancer. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.
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