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Joseph Bolivar De Lee (1969-1942)

Joseph Bolivar De Lee (1969-1942)

Joseph Bolivar De Lee, a prominent obstetrician, established the first “incubator station” for prematures in the USA at the Chicago Lying-In Hospital in 1898.

Dr. De Lee was born in Cold Spring, New York, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland who had ten children. The family moved several times during his childhood, and eventually to Chicago in 1885, where De Lee graduated from high school. He attended Chicago Medical College and graduated in 1891. After an internship in Chicago and postgraduate studies abroad, he set up a private obstetric clinic in Chicago. At the beginning, he primarily did prenatal care, with deliveries being done by midwives. However, as more and more women came to him for their deliveries and his practice grew, he used his own funds and support from various philanthropic organizations to open the Chicago Lying-In Hospital in 1895.

Meanwhile, many deliveries still took place at home, and the hospital developed a portable incubator in 1899 for transportation of premature infants to the hospital after a home birth. After arrival, the babies were cared for in a Lion incubator (“couveuse”). By 1901, De Lee had built out an entire infant transport service staffed with specially-trained nurses, but costs were high and funds ran out on the incubator station in 1908.

Source: Premature and Congenitally Diseased Infants, by Julius H. Hess, 1922.

De Lee was a proponent of deliveries by physicians and a systematic approach to childbirth. He introduced or promoted many changes in obstetric practice, including the preventative use of forceps, anesthesia, the fetoscope, face masks, a DeLee catheter and DeLee meconium trap used to suction the infant’s airway, and the “De Lee maneuver.” The mortality rate at the Lying-In Hospital was about a quarter of the national average, and was a popular training destination for medical students. DeLee also pioneered the use of filmmaking for purposes of medical teaching.

De Lee was employed with Northwestern University until 1929, when he aligned with the University of Chicago. He authored a successful medical textbook for obstetricians, a textbook for nurses, and a popular baby advice and recordkeeping book for parents, as well as nearly 100 articles. De Lee became an emeritus professor of the University of Chicago in 1935, and passed away at home in Chicago in 1942. He never married and had no children. He is remembered as the father of modern obstetrics.