Evidence of chronic undernutrition in late 19th century German infants of all social classes





chronic undernutrition, breastfeeding, historical growth, social class, translation


125 years ago, European infants grew differently from modern infants. We show weight gains of 20 healthy children weighed longitudinally from birth to age 1 year, published by Camerer in 1882. The data illustrate the historically prevalent concepts of infant nutrition practiced by German civil servants, lawyers, merchants, university professors, physicians, foresters and farmers. Breastfeeding by the mother was not truly appreciated in those days; children were often breastfed by wet nurses or received bottled milk. Bottle feeding mainly used diluted cow’s milk with some added carbohydrates, without evidence that appropriate amounts of oil, butter or other fatty components were added. French children from 1914 showed similar weight gain patterns suggesting similar feeding practices. The historical data suggest that energy deficient infant formula was fed regularly in the late 19th and early 20th century Europe, regardless of wealth and social class. The data question current concerns that temporarily feeding energy deficient infant formula may warrant serious anxieties regarding long-term cognitive, social and emotional behavioral development.


Boyd, E. (1980). Origins of the study of human growth. Portland, University of Oregon Health Sciences Center Foundation.

Camerer, W. (1882). Gewichtszunahme von 21 Kindern im ersten Lebensjahre. Jahrbuch der Kinderheilkunde Neue Folge 18, 254–264.

Cusick, S. E./Georgieff, M. K. (2016). The role of nutrition in brain development: The golden opportunity of the “First 1000 Days.” The Journal of Pediatrics 175, 16–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2016.05.013.

DEBInet – Deutsches Ernährungsberatungs- & Informationsnetz (2022). Humana Reisschleim flussig. Available online at https://www.ernaehrung.de/lebensmittel/de/HUMANA727/Humana-Reisschleim-flussig.php (accessed 7/26/2022).

Droese, W./Stolley, H. (1961). Kuhmilchfett und pflanzliches Fett in der Ernährung des jungen, gesunden Säuglings [Cow’s milk fat and vegetable fat in the feeding of young healthy infants]. Deutsche Medizinische Wochenschrift 86, 855–860. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0028-1112867.

Hermanussen, M./Bogin, B./Scheffler, C. (2018). Stunting, starvation and refeeding: a review of forgotten 19th and early 20th century literature. Acta Paediatrica (Oslo, Norway : 1992) 107, 1166–1176. https://doi.org/10.1111/apa.14311.

Kirolos, A./Goyheneix, M./Eliasz, M. K./Chisala, M./Lissauer, S./Gladstone, M./Kerac, M. (2022). Neurodevelopmental, cognitive, behavioural and mental health impairments following childhood malnutrition: a systematic review. BMJ Global Health 7 (7), e009330. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjgh-2022-009330.

Kuzawa, C. W. (1998). Adipose tissue in human infancy and childhood: an evolutionary perspective. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 107 (S27), 177–209. https://doi.org/10.1002/(sici)1096-8644(1998)107:27+<177::aid-ajpa7>3.0.co;2-b.

Patel, J. K./Rouster, A. S. (2022). Infant nutrition requirements and options, in: StatPearls. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560758/ (accessed 11/24/2022).

Schwarzenberg, S. J./Georgieff, M. K./Committee On Nutrition/Daniels, S./Corkins, M./Golden, N. H./Kim, J. H./Lindsey, C. W./Magge, S. N. (2018). Advocacy for improving nutrition in the first 1000 days to support childhood development and adult health. Pediatrics 141 (2), e20173716. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2017-3716.

Tanner, J. M. (1981). A history of the study of human growth. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Thayer, Z. M./Rutherford, J./Kuzawa, C. W. (2020). The maternal nutritional buffering model: an evolutionary framework for pregnancy nutritional intervention. Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health 2020 (1), 14–27. https://doi.org/10.1093/emph/eoz037.

Variot, G. (1914). Tables des Croissances comparées des Nourissons élevés au sein et au biberon durant la pemière Année de la Vie. Paris, A. Davy.

WHO (2006). WHO child growth standards: length/height-for-age, weight-for-age, weight-for-length, weight-for-height and body mass index-for-age: methods and development. Available online at https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/924154693X(accessed 7/26/2022).

Wilke, L./Boeker, S./Mumm, R./Groth, D. (2021). The social status influences human growth: A summary and analysis of historical data from German school girls in 1914 with comparison to modern references. Human Biology and Public Health 3. https://doi.org/10.52905/hbph2021.3.22.




How to Cite

Hermanussen, M., & Scheffler, C. (2022). Evidence of chronic undernutrition in late 19th century German infants of all social classes. Human Biology and Public Health, 2. https://doi.org/10.52905/hbph2022.2.42



Short Notes