Word of the Month: Breast Pump

This time Word of the Month is a familiar one: Breast Pump


Breast pumps are manual or electronically powered devices used by mothers to encourage lactation. They can be used to stimulate lactation for those with trouble breastfeeding or they can be used to extract milk to be placed in a bottle for a later feeding.

M0018719 Advertisement for an 'Improved Breast Pump', by Wright
Late 19th Century advertisement for an ‘Improved Breast Pump’, by H. Wright Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

The first pumps were patented in the mid-19th century by inventors including Orwell H. Needham in 1854. The earliest kinds were typically used to treat inverted nipples and to help infants who were too small or weak to nurse. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that the devices became electric-powered and mass marketed for home-use.

Depictions of breast pumps feature in several of our rare books, including this drawing from Émile Debout’s ‘A collection of plates illustrating the theory and practice of midwifery’ (1841).

L0007262 Plate illustrating the theory and practice of midwifery
Plate illustrating the theory and practice of midwifery from Debout’s ‘A collection of plates illustrating the theory and practice of midwifery’ (1841). Credit: Wellcome Library, London

It depicts the anatomy of the breast in addition to the pump. Debout recommends the use of the breast pump for inverted nipples and flexible ivory teats as were employed by the Maternité in Paris.

19th century breast pump from the RCOG Museum Collection (Copyright RCOG)

This beautifully made and boxed 19th century breast pump is part of the RCOG museum collection and would have been used to aid in the preparations for breast feeding or by wet nurses to provide breast milk for others. Alternatively, the breast pump could be used to relieve congestion or to draw off infected milk in cases of mastitis.

Breast drawer owned by midwife Maud Livesey in the mid-20th Century (Copyright RCM)

Another mid-20th century ‘breast drawer’, this time from the RCM Museum collection, was donated along with the papers of midwife Maud Livesey (1919-2007). It is made of glass and India-rubber. The pump is an early example of breast pumps being packaged and marketed directly to mothers for personal home-use.


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