Historical Review and Recent Advances
in Neonatal and Perinatal Medicine

Edited by George F. Smith, MD and Dharmapuri Vidyasagar, MD
Published by Mead Johnson Nutritional Division, 1980
Not Copyrighted By Publisher

Chapter 28

Some Famous "High Risk" Newborn Babies

T. N. K. Raju, M.D., D.C.H.


Modern intensive care for the so-called "high risk" newborn infant has virtually eliminated tragedies at birth. Despite the promises of these advances, many people still believe that babies small and sick at birth will remain weak and dull in adult life. In reality, with the exception of a small number of infants with severe neurological illness, the outlook for premature babies is just as good as that for babies born at term. In fact, several great and famous people shared the perils of the modern day "high risk" newborn, but grew up to become intellectual giants. Here are a few examples:

Johannes Kepler: German astronomer and mathematician. Born 1571. Lived 59 years. Estimated I.Q. 160. He had a bad start in life as he was a seven month baby and seven month babies were proverbially thought to be weak in body and mind. As he grew, however, his body became strong and his superior intellect evolved. He became the Principal Mathematician to the Emperor and a founder of modern astronomy and physics. He elucidated the Copernican concept of the Universe.

Sir Isaac Newton: British mathematician, astronomer, and physicist. Born 1642. Lived 85 years. Estimated I.Q. 170. On Christmas Day in the house of Woolthrope, a three pound baby, newly born, rested on a pillow near his mother. He was alive but fighting for breath. Frightened old midwives went for the doctor remarking, "The baby's as good as dead. It's a miracle if he lives until we get back. Such a tiny mite, he is." Later Isaac would remember fondly his mother's remark, "You were so tiny that you might have been put into a quart mug!" This tiny mite came to be known as one of the greatest scientific geniuses of all time.

Francois Marie Arouet De Voltaire: French philosopher, writer. Born 1694. Lived 84 years. Estimated I. Q. 180. On the day of his birth, because of poor chance of living, he was hurriedly baptized. The nurses had slapped him to life. Every morning they would come down from the attic (where the young one was kept) saying that he would not live an hour. The puny little boy, however, defied their morbid expectations. Voltaire is considered as a rare genius.

Samuel Johnson: British poet, critic, lexicographer. Born 1709. Lived 75 years. Estimated 1. Q. 155. Sarah Johnson was 40 when she gave birth to her first son on the afternoon of a cold September day. The labor was long and difficult. His father, a 52 year old bookseller, greeted him: "Here is a brave boy." The infant was, however, strangely inert and had no cry but finally, with persuasion, he made a few whimpers, breaking a long silence. Fearing impending death he was christened that evening. This inert boy lived to become one of the world's most important English lexicographers and literary critics. His conversational wit and the style of his essays are legendary.

Johann Wolfgang Goethe: German poet. Born 1749. Lived 83 years. Estimated 1. Q. 200. When he was 75, Goethe remarked, ". . . there has been nothing but toil and tumble (for me), . . . throughout my 75 years. I have not had 9 months of real freedom from care." His 18 year old mother suffered three days of mortal agony before the baby was delivered. He looked so lifeless and miserable that he was thought to be stillborn. For hours they rubbed his body with wine until, finally, he opened his eyes and lived.

Thomas Hardy: English writer. Born 1840. Lived 88 years. At birth he was thrown aside as dead, but the midwife exclaimed to the surgeon, "Dead, Sir! Stop a minute. He is alive enough, sure." A good slapping from her revived the baby who later became a prestigious English novelist and poet. Sir Winston Churchill: British statesman. Born 1874. Lived 91 years. He was not expected to be born until sometime in January of the following year. He upset a ball by his early birth on November 30. He had good lungs, for the Duchess of Marlborough shook her head and observed, "I have myself given life of quite a number of infants-such an earth shaking noise as this newborn baby made, I have never heard."

Pablo Picasso: Spanish artist. Born 1881. Lived 92 years. The sun-drenched seaport of Malaga on Spain's Mediterranean coast was the scene of his dramatic birth on October 25. The midwife judged the child just born to be dead and left him on the table while attending to his mother. Uncle Don Salvador, an experienced physician, resuscitated the little one and saved this future great artist.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: United States President. Born 1882. Lived 63 years. Sara Delano Roosevelt was in great agony from a long and difficult delivery and an overdose of chloroform nearly ended her life and that of her baby boy. The infant had a "death-like respiratory standstill, the skin blue and body limp." Mouth-to-mouth breathing revived the 10 pound baby. Years later, his mother would recall, ,'. . . too much of chloroform was nearly fatal to us ... the nurse said later she never expected the baby to live." Elected to four terms as president of the United States, Roosevelt occupies an important place in modern American history.

Anna Pavlova: Ballerina. Born 1885. Lived 46 years. As a premature infant she ". . . was so weak and puny that her parents had her baptized three days after birth. She spent most of her time in the next few months . . . wrapped in cotton wool." She ultimately became and was proclaimed the worlds's most famous ballerina.

D(avid) H(erbert) Lawrence: English writer. Born 1885. Lived 45 years. He was a frail child at birth and at two weeks of age he developed a severe attack of bronchitis. He remained, in his own words, "a delicate brat with a stuffy nose, whom most people treated quite gently as just an ordinary little lad." D. H. Lawrence ranks among the most influential literary figures of the 20th century. At 45, he died of tuberculosis.

The list could go on, but authentic biographies of great people rarely deal with the details of their birth. Even the above anecdotal remarks could be, to some extent, subjective. Despite all this, we can safely predict a bright future for today's premature and sick newborn baby.

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