Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Wet nursing: A historical perspective

Mariella Scerri
Mellieha, Malta

A Russian wet nurse
A Russian wet nurse, c. 1913. Painted by Frederic de Haenen public domain via Wikimedia.

Wet nursing, a form of breastfeeding provided by someone other than an infant’s biological mother,1 has a long and sometimes controversial history. Death in childbirth, a mother’s illness, as well as cultural habits and circumstance have all been reasons across civilizations to employ a surrogate to feed a newborn.2 In elite households, “nurses were considered as a status symbol”3 and fragments from legal texts, popular sayings, and historical works show that this was a common practice. The widespread employment of wet nurses led medical authors such as Soranus (of Ephesus), Galen (of Pergamum), and Oribasius (also of Pergamum), to write about their proper qualifications.4 Soranus composed an obstetrical and gynecological treatise of twenty-three chapters that provided a model for infant feeding5 and included the choice of a regimen for a wet nurse. It also described “the fingernail test used for assessing the quality and consistency of breastmilk.”6 Remarkably, this criterion for breast milk quality was used for centuries.7 Oribasius wrote that the wet nurse should be required to do some physical work other than her nursing obligations, such as grinding, weaving, and walking. Writings from the Middle Ages also outlined the specific qualities and duties of a wet nurse. In a classic example, Bartholomeus Anglicus, a Franciscan friar, wrote:

A nurse rejoices with a boy when it rejoices and weeps with him when he weeps, just like a mother, picks him up when he falls, gives the little one milk when he cries, kisses him as he lies, holds him tight and gathers him up when he sprawls, washes and cleans the little one when he makes a mess of himself.8

In the same era, however, appeared the first objections to wet nursing. Breast milk was deemed to “possess magical qualities, and it was believed that it could transmit both physical and psychological characteristics of the wet nurse.”9 This belief resulted in protests against the hiring of wet nurses, and a mother nursing her own child was considered a saintly duty.10 The Treatise on Children, published in 1577 and authored by the Italian Omnibonus Ferrarius, stressed that the mother was a better choice than a wet nurse except when the mother was ill or unwilling to breastfeed. Ferrarius worried that infants would “savour of the nature of the person by whom they are suckled,”11 and would come to love a wet nurse more than their mother because she had nurtured and cared for them.12 Thomas Raynalde wrote that “affections and qualities [of the nurse] passeth forth through the milke into the child, making the child of like conditions and manners.”13 In the opinion of the authors of the day, this needed careful management.

Also noteworthy are references to milk and infant feeding in the works of Shakespeare, where milk imagery was often appropriate to the dramatic scenario. In Titus Andronicus, Lavinia considers whether pleas for mercy will save her from being raped by the queen’s sons, who “even at thy teat […] hadst thy tyranny.”14 In Romeo and Juliet the nurse explains how Juliet was weaned after three years, that wormwood was applied to the breast, and that an earthquake accompanied the event.15 In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes angrily tells his wife that he “is glad [she] did not nurse” their son (aptly called Mamillius) as he removes him from his mother’s presence.16 Lady Macbeth’s murderous resolve centers on the image of a baby at her breast, which she would “have gladly plucked [my] nipple from his boneless gum”17 while exchanging “milk for gall”18 in the couple’s pursuit of the throne.

Shakespeare’s plays offer compelling cultural engagements with implied medical knowledge of the time. The weaning narrative in Romeo and Juliet provides more than a “domestic anecdote”19 since medical texts of the day taught that the influence of a nurse’s humoral milk could threaten family bonds. As a child would come to resemble the parents less and the wet nurse more, the child might prove “undutiful to their parents.”20 Juliet’s tragic tale, at least in part, explores the consequences of disrupted family bonds. Similarly, the nurse’s substitution for Lady Capulet’s “mother role is part of what problematizes family relationships in the play.”21 In Titus Andronicus, when Lavinia contemplates her attackers’ capacity for mercy, she identifies the connection between mothers and sons, where the sons are perceived as an extended metaphor of the queen’s body and self. Images of tyranny at the teat do more than simply express how very evil the queen is; they engage with concerns about the humoral connectivity of selves. The queen recalls her “devastating ability to shape progeny to her own mould”22 and at the play’s end, when she unknowingly eats a pie in which her sons are the filling, thus “eating the flesh that she herself hath bred,”23 the bodies of the sons appropriately return to the source.24

By Shakespeare’s time the debate over legitimate medical practices had become vociferous and public. The powerful College of Physicians fought hard to discredit some and rein in others, but many resisted, denied, or ignored its authority. Dramatists did not fail to notice the turmoil, nor did they fail to comment on it—and no one commented more profoundly on stage than William Shakespeare. Working from the “postmodern perspective on medical history established by Michel Foucault and others, many medically minded critics focus on the construction of the body in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.”25 For these critics, human bodies are not primarily objective physical realities; they are “social constructions and they are thus loaded with the same ideological and semiotic weight as any other social construction.”26 Others have noted, “No matter what the physical facts of any given bodily function may be, that function can be understood and experienced only in terms of culturally available discourses.”27 The medical discourse around the “early modern body were adapted by political discourse into metaphors of the body of the state creating notions of social pathology in which the state must protect itself against foreign invaders.” People believed that disease was a punishment for sinful behavior.28 Medicine became steeped in superstition and the Roman Catholic Church effectively dominated the direction of the medical world. Views differing from established Church teaching could result in punishments for heresy.

Before the invention of bottles and formulas, wet nursing was the safest and most common alternative to breastfeeding by the natural mother. Society’s negative view of wet nursing, combined with improvements in feeding bottles and the availability of animal milk, gradually led to the substitution of artificial feeding for wet nursing. In the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, “advancements in chemistry and food preservation contributed to the increased replacement of breastfeeding by formulas, which were heavily advertised and considered a safe alternative.”29 Scholarly literature, however, provides a rich tapestry on the history of wet nursing and its many implications.


  1. Thorley V. Mothers’ experiences of sharing breastfeeding or breast milk: co-feeding in Australia 1978-2008. Breastfeeding Review 17(1), 2009. Pg. 9-18.
  2. Sparreboom A. Wet Nursing in the Roman Empire (unpublished doctoral thesis. VU University Amsterdam. 2009. p. 2.
  3. Sparreboom, p. 21.
  4. Radbill S. Infant feeding through the ages. Clinical Paediatrics. 20 (10), 1981. Pg. 613-621.
  5. Osborn M.S. The Rent Breast, Part II. Midwife, Health Visitor and Community Nurse. 15 (9) 1979. Pg. 347 – 348.
  6. Wickes I.G. A History of Infant Feeding, Part 1. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 28 1953. Pf. 151-158
  7. Wickes, pg. 154.
  8. Osborn O. The Rent Breast: A Brief History of Wet-Nursing. Midwife, Health Visitor and Community Nurse. 15(8) 1979. Pg. 302-306.
  9. Osborn, p. 304.
  10. Osborn, p. 302-306.
  11. Osborn, p. 305.
  12. Osborn, pp. 302-306.
  13. Raynalde T. The Birth of Mankind. ed. by Elaine Hobby Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2009.
  14. Shakespeare W. Titus Andronicus. ii.3.145. ed. by Nicholas Brooke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  15. Shakespeare W. Romeo and Juliet. ii.3, ed. by Nicholas Brooke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  16. Shakespeare W. The Winter’s Tale. ii.1.56. ed. by Nicholas Brooke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  17. Shakespeare W. Macbeth. i.5.55. ed. by Nicholas Brooke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  18. Macbeth.
  19. SpareyV. A Mother’s Milk: Breastfeeding Mothers and Milk in Shakespeare. Early Modern Medicine. < https://.earlymodernmedicine.com/a-mothers-milk/> [accessed 3 January 2016].
  20. Newcome H. The Compleat Mother. London: Dodo Press, 2009.
  21. Fildes V. Breasts, Bottles and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1986.
  22. Sparey.
  23. Titus Andronicus, v.iii.9.
  24. Sparey.
  25. Howard T. and Pettigrew J. Shakespeare and the Practice of Physic: Medical Narratives on the Early Modern English Stage. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2007.
  26. Kern Paster G. The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England. New York: Cornell University Press, 1993.
  27. Harris J.G. Foreign Bodies and the Body Politic: Discourses of Social Pathology in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  28. Punjabi P. Shakespeare’s Understanding of Human Afflictions. Perfusion, 3(5) 2016.
  29. Stevens, E. E., Patrick, T. E., & Pickler, R. A history of infant feeding. The Journal of perinatal education 18(2) 2009. Pg 32–39.https://doi.org/10.1624/105812409X426314

MARIELLA SCERRI, BSc, BA, PGCE, MA, is a teacher of English and a former cardiology staff nurse at Mater Dei Hospital, Malta. She is reading for a PhD in Medical Humanities at Leicester University and a member of the HUMS program at the University of Malta.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 13, Issue 2– Spring 2021

Fall 2020  |  Sections  |  History Essays

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