Father of Pediatrics

German immigrant Abraham Jacobi changed the American medical community’s approach to children

By Ali Becker

Abraham Jacobi outside City College in 1912. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Abraham Jacobi outside of City College in 1912. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Abraham Jacobi, a 23-year-old doctor, arrived in New York City in 1853 after serving a two-year prison sentence for participating in revolutionary activity in Germany. He established a medical practice at 20 Howard Street in Manhattan and charged patients 25 cents per visit and 50 cents for a home visit. At the time, pediatrics did not stand alone as a medical field. Over the next 65 years, Jacobi changed the medical community’s approach to children, establishing pediatrics as an independent and important field of medicine.

Jacobi first drew attention to children’s illnesses by writing about them in the New York Medical Journal, and in so doing he launched a career full of firsts. In 1857, he landed a position as lecturer on pathology in infancy and childhood, the first position of its kind, at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Three years later, New York Medical College appointed him the first chair of pediatrics in the country. He set up the first free pediatric clinic and pioneered bedside clinical teaching, which did not yet have a place in medical instruction. In 1870, Jacobi returned to Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons to work as a clinical professor of diseases. A few years later, he set up the first department of pediatrics in a U.S. hospital: at the Jews Hospital, now known as Mount Sinai.

Jacobi not only described and chronicled rampant childhood illnesses such as whooping cough, diphtheria, diarrhea and scarlet fever; he held strong opinions about how environment and nutrition contributed to poor health. After witnessing the high infant mortality rate at The Nursery and Child’s Hospital of New York, which cared for poor or orphaned children, he concluded that “the younger the child, the larger the institution, the surer is death,” and advocated for children to be treated in smaller settings. (Jacobi was subsequently removed from his position by the board.) Jacobi encouraged mothers to breastfeed or give their infants boiled cow’s milk, rather than uncooked milk. And he argued against some common practices, such as the use of calomel—a mercury-based compound—to treat a variety of ailments.

Jacobi wrote more than 200 books and witnessed every medical school in the country open pediatric departments. He died in 1919 at the age of 89. The New York Times published his obituary, calling him the “Foremost Authority on Pediatrics.” Today he is credited as the “Father of Pediatrics.”

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