‘Open Wide’ for Better Baby Nutrition

Child Nutrition

By David McLaughlin

When Frederick Tisdall, Theodore Drake and Alan Brown of the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine introduced their new creation in 1930, you could say their market “ate it up.” The inventors of Pablum used medical knowledge, business savvy and marketing acumen to ensure babies could get proper nutrition — in-hospital and at home.

Infant and child nutrition was a serious concern at the time.

Many families couldn’t afford, or did not know how to provide, the carefully balanced diet infants need for good health. Public health was a growing priority and progressive doctors were starting to advocate for better nutrition to address childhood diseases.

Brown, who became Physician-in-Chief of The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in 1919, believed strongly that healthier food could reduce infant mortality. He set up a research facility at the hospital to improve childhood nutrition. In 1929, Tisdall became director of the Nutritional Research Laboratories, and began working with Theodore Drake to build on Brown’s work and produce the perfect infant food.

At the time, infants ate cereal and biscuits made mostly from wheat, oats or corn meal. Bran and germ were removed because babies could not digest them. Tisdall and Drake developed a mixture that contained all the essential vitamins and minerals but didn’t cause constipation or diarrhea.

Because newborns can't eat biscuits, the researchers next developed a cereal, suitable for spoon-feeding. But the mixtures they made in their lab took a lot of effort — not a problem for feeding babies in the hospital, but how would time-pressed mothers make it at home?

To be effective, the food had to be convenient.

The group took advantage of emerging food-processing technology to create a product that delivered good nutrition at a more affordable price. Tisdall met with executives of the Mead Johnson Company in Chicago. He struck a deal that gave the company permission to manufacture Pablum, with SickKids receiving a royalty on every box sold.

Pablum was the first baby food to be sold precooked and thoroughly dried.

Mass production meant the healthy food reached millions of babies and helped prevent poor health — including rickets, a crippling disease caused by vitamin D deficiency.

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