Friday, November 25, 2011
Sometime in the late 1870's, a Parisian obstetrician named Stephane Tarnier took a day off from his work at Maternite de Paris, the lying-in hospital for the city's poor women, and paid a visit to the nearby Paris Zoo. Wandering past the elephant and reptiles and classical gardens of the zoo's home inside the Jardin des Plantes, Tarnier stumbled across an exhibit of chicken incubators. Seeing the hatchlings totter about in the incubator's warm enclosure triggered an association in his head, and before long he had hired Odile Martin, the zoo's poultry raiser, to construct a devise that would perform a similar function for human new borns. By modern standards, infant mortality was staggeringly high in the late nineteenth century, even in a city as sophisticated as Paris. One in five babies died before learning to crawl, and the odds were far worse for premature babies born with low birth weights. Turnier knew that temperature regulation was critical for keeping there infants alive, and he knew that the French medical establishment had d deep-seated obsession with statistics. And so as soon as his newborn incubator had been installed at Maternite, the fragile infants warmed by hot water bottles below the wooden boxes, Tarnier embarked on a quick study of five hundred babies. The results shocked the Parisian medical establishment: while 66 percent of low weight babies died within weeks of birth, only 38 percent died if they were housed in Tarnier's incubating boxes. You could effectively halve the mortality rate for premature babies simply by housing them like hatchlings in a zoo.
Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From