In what has been hailed as “the first salvo in the battle of the breast versus bottle,” pediatrician Cicely Williams in 1939 accused the Nestle company of murder by infant formula in a notable address before the Singapore Rotary Club.
“If your lives were embittered as mine is, by seeing day after day this massacre of the innocents by unsuitable feeding, then I believe you would feel as I do that misguided propaganda on infant feeding should be punished as the most criminal form of sedition, and that these deaths should be regarded as murder.”
Williams, who was the first to describe a malnutrition of children in Africa called kwashiokor, had been abruptly transferred to a teaching post in Malaysia after a clash with colonial British administrators in Ghana over the medical care of women and children. There she was appalled by Nestle’s practice of dressing saleswomen as nurses to visit poor neighborhoods and persuade mothers to feed their infants Nestle’s infant formula instead of breastfeeding them.
Williams’ provocative speech had little impact, though, because the Japanese soon occupied Malaysia and Williams spent three and a half years in a prisoners of war camp during World War II. After the War, she was appointed the first head of the World Health Organization’s Maternal and Child Health Services.
Her 1939 speech didn’t appear in print until 1977. The modern Nestle boycott against infant formula was launched in 1977 and remains active today in some parts of the world.
Citation for Emma Huskins. Milk and murder: changing infant feeding practices 1930-1970 and the work of Cicely Williams. Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine dissertation. 2000.