A young mother of the early twentieth century who couldn’t or didn’t want to breastfeed was a creature entirely at the hands of bumbling chance. Doctors of the era prescribed individually concocted replacement formula recipes based on a mixture of patchwork research, folk wisdom, and personal idiosyncracy. The most scientific among them considered three factors and three alone: proteins, fats, and carbs. The vitamin and antibody content of milk went blithely unmeasured until poor growth rates, scurvy, and rickets became so endemic in lower income households that a new, rigorous approach to infant nutrition, and the mother-fetus dyad, was required. The woman at the head of that approach was a pioneer farm girl turned biochemist by the name of Icie Macy (1892-1984).
Her early life reads like a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. Born on a remote farm in Gallatin, Missouri in 1892, her first years were filled with the daily chores of rural life, with preparing food for preservation in the root cellar, harnessing horses for harvest, and occasionally mourning the passing of a beloved cow struck by lightning. Dirt roads, outhouses, and country piety were the matter of her early memories – those, and a profound curiosity about nature’s workings. How do seeds grow? How does a chick develop and hatch?
For many country girls, that curiosity went spectacularly unfulfilled, but Macy’s parents believed stoutly in education and progress. Her father was at the head of every effort to bring technology to Gallatin, laying down electrical lines and paving roads, and he insisted that so long as his daughter had the drive to learn, he would do whatever he could to ensure her the means. “In the future we may not be able to provide you with many material things or wealth,” her parents said, “but if we can encourage and provide an endowed education we are giving you something that cannot be taken from you.”
Like Florence Sabin, her first dream was a musical career but, again like Sabin, she came to a point where she felt mere technical prowess could take her no further. She hated performing, and doubted her ability to meaningfully interpret the music beyond the correctness of the notes, and with her father’s blessing switched her major from music to English. English, however, was a choice of convenience, as she came to realize her true passion lay in science, and in particular in the rapidly developing field of biochemistry. Her college career coincided with the heady days of the Vitamin Revolution, when the connection between vitamin deficiency and physical abnormality was being uncovered by a dedicated but often mocked cadre of scientists attempting to bring the insights of chemistry to the study of biology.
Macy was encouraged by her professors to not settle for a career as an underappreciated teacher, but to explore her gift for original research, and her early experiences in the classroom reinforced that decision. Though she attempted to make light of it, the daily harassment she endured as a woman science professor burns through the pages of her memoirs:
In those years of my youth I blushed readily and radiantly. My associates and students had great fun in stimulating my red face and neck. At times I was forced to fight back to retain my womanly dignity and self-respect but usually I could muster some humor and accept the trauma without too much annoyance. Most of the students assigned to my sections of freshman chemistry were older than the usual freshman. Many were returning soldiers of World War I. Some resented having a woman teacher much less a young blushing upstart of a girl. Other students were less earnest and younger, were delighted to sit in the front row of seats looking up into the blushing face of their teacher, making wisecracks to increase the intensity of the color. This was traumatic at times until I regained my self-respect and gathered courage and determination to demonstrate to the class that a woman chemistry teacher was capable of teaching, even grown men just back from war.
Even when she was free of disrespectful students, her battle with casual institutional sexism was hardly done. As a researcher at a Pittsburgh hospital in 1920, she faced both of the undersung horrors of pioneering professional women: bathrooms and cafeterias.
It might sound trivial, but the roll call of absurd indignities experienced by early women scientists at the hands of these two facilities could fill its own article. Macy’s case is a typical one. Her hospital had bathroom facilities for male staff only, and so informed her that, if she needed a restroom, she would have to use a public toilet a half-block away. That would involve leaving her post for an extended time and, since she didn’t want to get criticized for being absent, she did what so many women did in similar circumstances – she held it and only went to the restroom when absolutely necessary, developing an acute case of nephritis as a result that required months to recover from.
Meanwhile, in the cafeteria she was forbidden from eating with the male doctors, and regulations prevented her from eating with the nurses. So, a place was eventually found with her at the worker’s cafeteria, except that her schedule didn’t match theirs, so she was reduced to eating whatever leftovers were to be had after their lunch, alone in an empty room.
She was, at this time, a doctor with a PhD from Yale, a highly gifted lab researcher doing important work in the emerging field of nutrition, and yet she was reduced to scavenging for leftovers, and ruining her kidneys, all for the sake of institutional prudery. It was a low point in her career and, though the president of the hospital eventually interceded on her behalf to remove the worst of the impositions, better times didn’t truly come until an offer arrived from UC Berkeley to teach under the expert guidance of home economics giant Agnes Fay Morgan.
She was not long in that post, however, before a call came from the newly established Merrill-Palmer School in Michigan to head their nutritional research division. That institution was established with the goal of improving the lot of children through a thorough study of the nutritional needs of mothers, fetuses, and infants. It was an ideal job for Macy, with her focus on the intersection of children’s welfare, chemistry, and public policy.
Here, and at its successor institution, the Children’s Fund of Michigan Research Division, she served for five decades, driving research into the chemical components that make infants develop normally, and dispelling the haze of rumor and half-practice that dominated pediatric practice previously.
Not surprisingly, much of her research focused on the composition of breast milk to determine the links between the mother’s nutritional needs and the infant’s growth. At the start of her career, the most advanced facilities screened milk for twelve chemical factors. By the time her studies were in full swing, over two hundred separate components had been identified and catalogued according to their changing concentration over the course of nursing.
“This was traumatic at times until I regained my self-respect and gathered courage and determination to demonstrate to the class that a woman chemistry teacher was capable of teaching, even grown men just back from war.”
She put definitively to rest a prevailing slice of wisdom about the superiority of Jersey over Holstein milk and, more importantly, carried out tests about how best to enrich milk with Vitamin D while also conducting studies about the optimal amount needed to prevent rickets without a toxic vitamin overdose. If Vitamin D milk is a commonplace now, while rickets, once the scourge of America’s slums, is not, much of the thanks for that must go to Macy.
But maybe it takes more to impress you than the eradication of a disease that grotesquely twisted the development of thousands of children annually. Very well, then. Macy’s studies of the effects of deficiency of all vitamins led directly to the development of nutritive supplements for the children of low income families that all but eliminated scurvy as well (some parents chose to use their children’s lemon allotment to flavor their cocktails, as it turned out, thus the “all but”). 550 children over the course of her study received some 280 tons of milk, 28 tons of vegetable soup, 5 tons of fruit, 2.5 tons of lemon juice powder/martini enhancer, and 300 gallons of cod liver oil (for its high vitamin D content).
Her studies of the varying composition of blood during an infant’s development led to the discovery of hemoglobin deficiency in many African American children which in turn led to improved anemia screening practices, while her studies of breast milk determined that, while a mother produces natural barriers to make sure her child does not receive toxic overdoses of vitamins, there are no such barriers for artificial chemicals or drugs. These studies then prepared the way for an appreciation of the unique health problems facing children of alcoholic or drug-addicted mothers.
And not only all of that, but she also established a correlation between access to pre-natal care and the subsequent health and growth of the baby, the statistics from which contributed to the push for universal access to such care regardless of ability to pay, which lowered the birth risks to both mother and child and made our world of regular pregnancy check-up screenings a reality.
Somewhere in the midst of those vital studies, she married Dr. Raymond Hoobler. She was 46, and he was 66, and seems something of a George Babbitt, but he treated her well enough and, most importantly, supported her fully in continuing her career. They lived happily through the five years they had together before his death. She never re-married but devoted herself increasingly to large-scale nutrition projects, including a trip to India where she records herself as being astounded to find that, yes, women of other faiths seemed to care about their children’s health too. (Her unconscious assumption that virtue is a unique property of Christians is one of her memoir’s less charming aspects.)
She began in a world that barely knew what milk was and ended by not only exhaustively analyzing its shifting composition, and not only detailing the extent and limits of a mother’s chemical barriers, but perfecting methods to produce milk that would eliminate one of childhood’s most ghastly diseases. Her work made care of the mother from the onset of pregnancy a priority, and showed the impact of food and shock on a child’s development, and her larger nutritional studies provided baselines for nutritive value that made governmental relief programs for poor children a targeted force for large scale good.
And yet, in spite of the massive boon her work was for civilization, my guess is that most of us haven’t heard of Icie Macy-Hoobler. Because she worked with children, and child nutrition is a part of “women’s science,” and women’s science somehow doesn’t count. Like Ellen Swallow, she was a researcher whose impact was measured in the millions of lives her work saved and enriched rather than in acclaim, and for her, if not for our own sense of justice, that was enough.
FURTHER READING Macy’s autobiography, Boundless Horizons: Portrait of a Pioneer Woman Scientist (1982), when it’s not talking about Christians being necessarily virtuous and non-Christians as being surprisingly virtuous, is a charming delight. It’s basically Little House in the Big Woods if Laura ended up becoming a kick-ass biochemist.