Formula: How did we get hooked anyway?

Fellow breastfeeding enthusiasts, have you ever wondered how African-Americans came to be hooked on the breast-milk substitute (read: formula) anyway?

In 2010, the Blacktating blog introduced us to the Fultz Quads, the African-American quadruplets who were used to endear black families to breast-milk substitutes back beginning in 1946. If you’re not familiar, take a trip with us as we explore this deeply fascinating herstory of predatory marketing, scientific claims and shady promises.

Annie Mae and James ‘Ole Pete” Fultz were the parents of the first on record African-American quadruplets to be born – and the first quads born in the South to live. They were delivered by one Dr. Klenner, who also named the girls after women in his family. The parents already had six children before the all-girl quadruplets arrived and are described as living on “a tenant farm down a narrow, rutted dirt road.” I’m certain that I don’t know any families who feel prepared to care for 6 children in 2012, so thinking of a couple in Jim Crow South – working in conditions only a hair away from sharecropping – stretches the limits of my imagination. Adding quadruplets completely blows my mind. The Fultz’ were rightfully concerned about their capacity to provide for their 10 children, which seemed to be a ripe opportunity for the Pet formula company to make them an offer.

The company promised the family a steady supply of Pet Evaporated Milk, farmland and a stipend of $350 a month – to include payment for a live-in nurse, who ended up adopting the girls at age 12. In return, the Fultz’ gave the Pet formula company permission to document the quadruplets’ development into adolescence and use in promotion of their product, like what you see in this Baltimore Afro-American newspaper ad and this one in the Washington Afro American newspaper. The images were used in national campaigns as an attempt to make formula seem as nutritious as and as a more convenient, safe replacement for mother’s milk. For the first 14 or so years of their lives, the girls were also part of live exhibitions and appearances to promote the product. They were made into spectacles for this project, which their nurse (and later adopted mother) cites as a major reason they failed out of Bethune-Cookman and were unable to form close relationships with outsiders. Ebony did an in-depth interview with their adopted mother, Elma Pearl Saylor, in November 1968 that is absolutely fascinating.

So, what’s the big deal? By all accounts, it appears that Pet Milk upheld their contractual obligation this family, however opportunistic it was. The trouble with the story of the Fultz Quads is that this campaign was probably a major factor in the decline of breastfeeding by African-American mothers. Studies, such as this one, show that there was a decline in breastfeeding rates across in this country from the 1940s – 1970s, in response to formula advertising. While they may not be well-known now, for decades the Fultz Quads were practically household names. This 1962 report on the “urban market” includes information about why Pet’s campaign was so successful, citing the Fultz quads as a successful model for marketing to black families.

This is exactly why the International Code for Marketing breast-milk Substitute (WHO Code) began advising in the 1970s that “there be no advertising or other form of promotion to the general public of products” (infant formula) and that healthcare professionals should not “imply or create a belief that bottle-feeding is equivalent or superior to breast-feeding.”

The media campaign documenting the lives of the Fultz quads followed them through their teens, as shown in this memory book.

Read more:

And then there was one (News & Record, Aug 4, 2002)

The Fultz Quads: Grown-up, disappointed and bitter (Ebony, Nov. 1968)

Little Known Black History Fact: The Fultz Quads (Blacktating blog, Oct 28, 2010)

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About Anayah

Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka writes and speaks about breastfeeding, maternal health, motherhood and personal empowerment. She works on breastfeeding campaigns with MomsRising, is a co-founder of Black Breastfeeding Week and co-editor of Free to Breastfeed: Voices of Black Mothers. Anayah is a mother of 2, wife and graduate Nurse-Midwifery/Women's Health Nurse Practitioner student at Yale University.