Infection of the Innocents: Wet Nurses, Infants, and Syphilis in France

Sherwood, Joan

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn
  • Date of entry: Nov-30-2010
  • Last revised: Nov-28-2010


In the eighteenth century, Europe began to take stock of the horrific infant mortality in foundling homes and hospitals. Infant feeding and care became a major preoccupation for charities and philanthropic doctors. Some organized systems of wet nurses in the communities and institutions to provide for motherless children. 

At the same time, syphilis was becoming a serious problem in newborns. The sexually transmitted disease, which swept the continent following the voyages of Columbus, was known to affect babies born to infected mothers. Since the early sixteenth century, doctors had been convinced that mercury was of benefit.

Founded in 1724, the Vaugirard Hospital of Paris was the city’s home for orphans. By 1780 it had made room for mothers with syphilis and their children.  Sometimes the mothers died, or well-off families would abandon their sick children. Healthy wet nurses were engaged to feed these babies.

Eventually, the wet nurses were viewed as a technology—a vehicle--for administering mercury to the babies through their milk. Many of these healthy women fell ill, either from the mercury or by infection from their charges. Nevertheless, the practice continued into the nineteenth century. The wet nurses did not know (or were not told) that the children were infected. The physicians in charge of this experiment also attempted unsuccessfully to vaccinate the wet nurses against syphilis. That experiment also spread the disease.

Remarkably, some wet nurses brought suits against the doctors or the birth families. Occasionally they won damages, and finally the law was changed to offer greater protection.


Using medical journals and case law, historian Joan Sherwood  shows how poor women were exploited, victimized, and ultimately vindicated. Their legal success led to an alteration in French law about doctor-patient confidentiality. Well researched, well written and illustrated with photographs, the work is statistically rich in charts and tables, with details on specific legal cases from 1831 to 1906.

This research contributes to the history of medical experimentation and medical ethics. It also reveals surprising conviction and strength among poor women who are often perceived to have been powerless.


McGill-Queen's University Press

Place Published

Montreal and Kingston



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