Over the course of the centuries, also in profane art, the breastfeeding mother was one of the most frequent motives in drawings, paintings, sculptures and even music (e.g. F.Schubert : Lied "Vormeiner Wiege"). Some of these paintings are rather peculiar, sometimes even of medical interest, as for instance "la mujer barbudu" (the bearded woman) by Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652). He was a Spanish painter, born in Valencia, but working mostly in Naples, where he was therefore called "lo Spagnoletto" (Fig.1). Is it really possible that a woman with such a massive virilization can bear and nurse an infant? The painter describes important details in the legend next to the figures: Magdalena is a 52-year-old woman from the Abruzzes who has given birth to three children. She became severely virilized at the age of 37 and grew a full and abundant beard. The legend does not mention that she had another child thereafter. She was considered a great miracle ofnature, and Ferdinand, the Vice King ofNaples, ordered de Ribera to capture this extraordinary woman in a painting. But how could he show that this person really was a female, without undressing this poor and shy woman from the mountains? The solution of this dilemma: he laid an infant in her arms and thus gave a reason to uncover the breast as proof of her feminine nature. A very decent solution of a very delicate problem! It seems quite obvious that a 52-year-old woman who probably suffered from an androgen-producing tumour ofthe adrenal glands or ovaries would not be able to get pregnant and breastfeed her own infant. In fact, the baby is not sucking. So, de Ribera does not really deceive his spectators, except perhaps those who do not read his Latin explanations. On the other hand, based on observations of "relactating" grandmothers or even nursing men, she might have been able to breastfeed without having been pregnant a b
EN MAGNVM NATVRA MIRACVLVM MAGDALENA VENTVRA EX OPPIDO ACCVMVLI APVD SAMNITES VULGO EL ABRUZZO REGNI NEAPOLITANI ANNORUM 52 ET QVOD INSOLENS EST CVM ANNVM 37 AGERET COEPIT PUBESCERE EOQVE BARBA DEMISSA AC PROLIXA EST UT POTIVS ALICUIUS MAGISTRI BARBATI ESSE VIDEATVR QVAM MULIERIS QVAE TRES FILIOS ANTE AMISERIT QVOS EX VIRO SVO FELICI DE AMICI QVEM ADESSE VIDES HABVERAT.
JOSEPHVS DE RIBERA HISPANVS CHRISTI CRVCE INSIGNITVS SVI TEM-PORIS ALTER APELLES IVSSV FERDI-NANDI DVCIS IN DEALCAEA NEAPOLI PROREGIS AD VIWM MIRE DEPINXIT. ...KALEND. MART. MDCXXXI
Fig.l. a.) Jusepe de Ribera: La mujer barbuda (the bearded woman), Museo de Toledo, Spain. b.) Latin legend next to figures.
Is there a fundamental reason why men should not be able to breastfeed? They have nipples, viable but admittedly rudimentary mammary glands, and they produce prolactin and also some estrogens. Even male new-borns can produce witch's milk in their enlarged breasts, andpubertal gynaecomastia -exceptionally even accompanied by galactorrhea - is a wide-spread phenomenon in young men. We know already from Aristotle that there are male animals, especially he-goats, who can nurse their young and who can be milked. Modern veterinary science confirms this phenomenon. Exactly 200 years ago, Alexander von Humbolt, one ofthemost famous scientists of his time, undertook a great research expedition to the equinoctial regions of the New Continent (South America) 1. There he met Francesco Lozano, a man who had suckled his infant during 5 months. When the infant's mother became ill, the 32-year-old Lozano took the infant, pressed him to his breast, and the child started to suck at his nipple. He suddenly felt the accumulation of fluid in his breast gland and was able to feed the child. The son, exclusively nourished with his father's milk, throve excellently. Humbolt thereafter studied the scientific literature on this topic and found descriptions of similar cases, reported in earlier centuries. He mentioned also, that in old Russia, anatomists had occasionally found milk-producing glands in the male population. In the Talmud, there is another description of a father who nursed his son after his wife's death2. I suppose male breastfeeding is indeed possible in rare cases and under very special circumstances: it probably requires an extraordinary output of releasing hormones and estrogens, perhaps induced by intensive, mother-like feelings of fatherhood, maybe coupled with pre-existing hyperprolactinemia and enhanced responsiveness ofthe glandular tissues to hormonal and local stimuli by the sucking baby.
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For many years, scientists have been playing out the ingredients that make breast milk the perfect food for babies. They've discovered to day over 200 close compounds to fight infection, help the immune system mature, aid in digestion, and support brain growth - nature made properties that science simply cannot copy. The important long term benefits of breast feeding include reduced risk of asthma, allergies, obesity, and some forms of childhood cancer. The more that scientists continue to learn, the better breast milk looks.