BORN: Clinton, Ontario • 3 November 1893
DIED: Thornhill, Ontario • 23 April 1949
It used to be a lot tougher to be a kid in Canada. Even in the early years of the twentieth century, polio and diabetes were terrifying child- killers. And if you had the misfortune of being poor, it was always much worse: miserable things like rickets and chronic diarrhoea were a constant threat. Thousands of Canadian children died before their fourth birthdays.
Slowly, medical research scored the major break¬ throughs that were required to overcome some of these diseases; Fred Banting’s discovery of insulin was just the best known. A much less dramatic but crucial step towards improved infant mortality rates came only a few years later in the form of a flavourless, lumpy mush.
It was 1931 and Dr Fred Tisdall, working out of a laboratory at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, gave the world its first taste of pablum.Pablum is known worldwide as the first scientifically engineered baby food, but its inventor is not known, evidence of Tisdall’s pursuit of knowledge over fame.
A standout student at the University of Toronto medical school, Tisdall graduated during the Great War before pursuing further training at Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities. He returned to Toronto in the 1920s and set his sights on curbing the country’s infant mortality rate.
A dynamic personality and born salesman as well as an inspired researcher, Tisdall secured research funding for major investigative work in the area of nutrition. Heading a team of several doctors, Tisdall perfected a formula in early 1930 for a baked biscuit that contained wheat germ, milk, butter, and all the scientifically determined goodness he could cram into it.
He worked out a deal with a cookie-maker so that the biscuit would be widely available, and his hospital received a portion of the proceeds for further research.A cheap, durable food that would protect its consumers from malnutrition was a significant achievement, but it was not the big one.
Biscuits were ideal for older children, but infants needed something that did not have to be chewed.A baby’s need for a balanced diet, though still not perfectly understood, was deemed to be even greater than what the biscuit could provide.
Experiments with vitamin-enriched,dehydrated cereal mixtures took time, but, finally, in 1931, pablum was ready for the market.Tisdall knew the product would make an immediate impact if it was widely available, so he travelled to Chicago to find the right company to sell it.
At the same time, he made sure that royalties would continue to flow to research at Sick Kids, which was fast gaining a world reputation as a centre for nutrition science. As the doctor predicted, Mead’s Cereal—pablum’s first tradename—was a huge seller around the globe in a matter of years. After all, here, for the first time, was a nearly perfect scientifically devised infant food.
The invention saved countless lives, but pablum also stood for something else: its universal popularity marked the triumph of the medicalization of birth and child- rearing. From the 1930s, mothers were no longer urged to trust their instincts when it came to having and raising babies.
Doctors knew best, and each subsequent medical advance seemed to confirm what only a few dared question: that the scientific approach to having children was the only choice for responsible parents. Generations of children, especially in North America, would feel the effects.
Tisdall mostly dodged the credit for his discovery, but he continued to test recipes for nutritional foods in the years after pablum’s discovery. He made sure that improvements quickly found their way to market, and he always turned the profits back into research.In short, Fred Tisdall figured out what was required and how to sell it. His epitaph could have read “Millions and Millions Served—and Tens of Thousands Saved.”