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A bottle for baby

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2019 - Autumn


Many know of YSM’s renowned collection of medical curiosities. Few, however, know of a unique collection: antique baby bottles.

Wander the maze of interconnected Yale New Haven Hospital (YNHH) and Yale School of Medicine buildings between Cedar Street and Howard Avenue, and you will eventually come across a pair of facing display cases. They hold one of Yale’s most unusual collections: antique baby bottles.

The 27 infant feeding vessels range in historical period from the first or second century B.C. to the 1940s, and provide a fascinating visual primer on the evolution of the baby bottle. They include a tiny two-handled terracotta vessel resembling a vase discovered in a Roman child’s tomb in southern Italy; an elaborately patterned blue-and-white Staffordshire “submarine” bottle from the early- to mid-19th century; and a 1940s milk bottle-style feeder with a built-in thermometer. Other shapes include oval—to mimic a breast—oblong, and pear, with a variety of lips, spouts, and mouths to facilitate feeding.

YNHH owns the collection, thanks to the passion and generosity of one man, Howard Fink, MD. A retired Milford pediatrician and professor at the School of Medicine, Fink spent decades collecting and researching the vessels—most of which were given to him. He scoured old advertisements, journal articles, and books to learn their makers, ages, and histories. His relentless sleuthing paid off, yielding basic information—and often much more—about of all the bottles.

“You suspect something, but you don’t really know until you research it,” Fink, who is 90 and lives in a senior facility in Chicago, Illinois, said in a recent phone interview. “There was really no organized place to look. They were all rather difficult.”

As Fink approached retirement in 2000, he wanted to preserve all of his hard work and give back to Yale after years spent training young pediatricians. He decided to offer the collection to the hospital, which accepted it. “I spent so much wonderful time at the children’s hospital, I wanted to leave something to the hospital.” Fink said. “It gave a lot of satisfaction to be able to do that.”

Consulting his research, Fink wrote captions, and he and his wife placed the bottles in the display cases nearly 20 years ago. They’ve been there ever since, according to hospital archivist Susan Dee. In 2012, hospital officials retyped the collection’s labels and installed new lights, but the collection is otherwise unchanged from the time that Fink donated it, Dee said. Although the bottles are not in an area accessible to the general public, their location in a high-traffic hallway of the Clinic Building means they get a lot of passersby, Dee said. “It’s kind of a landmark,” she said in a recent interview. “People know them.”

Fink, a New York City native who attended medical school at the University of Louisville, moved to Milford in 1959 and established a pediatrics practice. One day, a nurse told Fink she’d found some old baby bottles in her attic and asked him if he wanted them. He said yes and quickly became an avid collector. “I was always a real hobbyist, and this was my favorite hobby,” he said.

Why the fascination? Professional curiosity, Fink replied. “So much of a pediatrician’s time is spent advising mothers on how to feed babies, how to prepare formula, how to nurse,” he said. “So any pediatrician would naturally be interested in something like this.”

Other highlights of Fink’s collection are a lantern-shaped vessel with a spout that dates from A.D. second- or third-century Israel, and a circa 1774 tin feeder forged by German craftsmen in Pennsylvania. It resembles a tiny pitcher with a rod topped by a tiny ball on the end—the feeding spout—sticking out from its side. Its makers called it a Mammele—“little breast” in German, according to Fink’s research.

Not all the bottles have happy stories. The display includes several so-called “murder bottles”—a style popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that used a rubber hose to convey milk from the vessel to the baby. The rubber hoses proved impossible to sterilize completely, leading to infections that killed many infants. In spite of moves to ban the bottles as early as 1897, they remained for sale in the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog—the mail-order Amazon of its day—as late as 1915, according to Fink’s research.

Dee said the school greatly appreciates the collection, adding she wishes she knew even more about it. “To have it right here on our property on the hospital grounds is pretty unique,” she said. “I know it gets seen.” That’s music to Fink’s ears. Decades later, he remains happy that he gave YNHH the bottles he painstakingly collected and researched.

“It gave me a lot of pleasure,” Fink said. “All my work hasn’t been wasted. Someone else is enjoying them.”