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  • From Human Dairies to Milk RidersA Visual History of Milk Banking in New York City, 1918–2018
  • Mathilde Cohen (bio) and Hannah Ryan (bio)


In the late 2000s Hudson Valley nurse practitioner and lactation consultant Julie Bouchet-Horwitz became very concerned. No human milk banks were left in the Northeast,1 which meant that parents of infants requiring donor human milk, be it because they were premature, failed to thrive on formula, or suffered from intolerances, gastrointestinal problems, or other diseases, had to order it from out-of-state banks. Around that time the Delaware and the North Carolina banks, which had been the primary New York suppliers, suddenly decided to cease their exports to New York. “Where were people in New York going to get milk?” asked Bouchet-Horwitz, adding, “Ohio obtained a license in 2010, and then Massachusetts in 2012. So now we had two additional states, but I felt that there was no guarantee that we could continue to obtain it. If there was ever a milk shortage, they weren’t going to send it to our state.”2 She thus set out to institute The New York Milk Bank (NYMB), which opened its doors in Hastings-on-Hudson in September 2016.3

There had been a time, a little over one hundred years ago, when New York had been at the forefront of human milk banking—or rather, “breast milk dairy[ing],” as one of the doctors involved referred to it in the 1920s. As early as 1914 physician Raymond Hoobler reports trying out the idea of collecting and distributing human milk at the Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan.4 In 1921 the “Mothers’ Milk Bureau of the Children’s Welfare Federation of New York City” was inaugurated, soon expanding to add three stations in different sections of the city. The bureau operated until the late 1940s, distributing a total of 2,335,000 ounces of human milk.5 Despite this early start, milk banking disappeared from New York for close to half a century due to a conjunction of factors, in particular financial difficulties—operating costs were high and public funding was lacking—and the increased use of commercial, [End Page 139] cow’s milk–based infant formula. A milk bank opened at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset in 1979 at a time when the use of donor human milk for premature babies had regained popularity, only to shut down in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.6 After this closure, families desperate for human milk for their premature or sick babies were left procuring it from out-of-state milk banks “and bring[ing] it into the hospitals,”7 recounts Julie Bouchet-Horwitz, as no New York hospital had applied for the Department of Health license required to obtain and dispense human milk.

Milk banking is now back with fanfare in New York. In its first year of operation, the new milk bank set up twenty-three depots across the state to facilitate donors’ deposits; created a much talked about partnership with the Sirens Women’s Motorcycle Club of New York City to deliver the milk; and accumulated a milk surplus when many banks nationally experienced shortages. How should we think about this milk banking renaissance and its connection to its prewar antecedents? Is the newly minted New York Milk Bank part of the same socio-cultural lineage? Until the early twentieth century, when infants could not be breastfed by their own mother, the solution was to call for a wet nurse (when families could afford it) or to ask friends and relatives to nurse the baby,8 or to resort to animal milk, knowing that it could be a risky substitute for human milk.9 Milk, be it human or animal, was the quintessential example of a local substance that did not travel.10 A highly unstable fluid, milk spoils if not refrigerated and stored properly. Without modern transportation systems—and before electric breast pumps became widely available—milk had to be consumed immediately, from nipple to mouth.11 There was no such thing as homogenized human milk in a labeled bottle (fig. 1).12 But the nipple-to-mouth...


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pp. 139-170
Launched on MUSE
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