Millions of Lives Saved by Pasteurized Milk

  • Prosperity
  • 1892

Nathan Straus is little remembered today, though he is one of the most effective philanthropists in American history. He immigrated from Bavaria with his family as a small child in 1854. Following a typical path for many Jews of the era, the family pursued retailing, eventually coming to New York City. Nathan entered the family’s china and glassware business at 18, and in 1874 the family began operating the china and glassware departments of the Macy’s department store. The Straus family’s departments were so profitable that the family became partners with R. H. Macy’s heirs in both the Macy’s and Abraham & Straus stores, before taking over both concerns entirely. And still the family made gains, bringing numerous innovations to retailing that fueled Macy’s expansion. In 1902 the store became New York’s largest, and the family one of the city’s wealthiest. But their philanthropy had become prominent years before.

Nathan and his wife gave away the great bulk of their fortune during their lives, spreading their charity widely. Their efforts included everything from providing clean water to soldiers in the Spanish-American War, to constructing dozens of tuberculosis clinics across America, to building a health center in Jerusalem to aid persons of all races and creeds, to building a Catholic Church in New Jersey. The Strauses would have their greatest effect on human flourishing by crusading for pasteurized milk. It began as concern for their own six children. Like many affluent families, the Strauses kept cows to supply their home with milk, but one of the beasts abruptly died and was discovered to have tuberculosis. Recalling that Louis Pasteur’s method of heating milk killed most dangerous germs, Straus decided his children would drink only pasteurized milk. At the same time, he embarked on reforms to help poor children obtain safe milk. He established milk stations in poor neighborhoods to give away the pasteurized product and prove its value. “In 1891 fully 24 percent of babies born in New York City died before their first birthday. But of the 20,111 children fed on pasteurized milk supplied by Nathan Straus over a four-year period, only six died,” notes historian John Steele Gordon.

Straus donated pasteurization equipment to the city’s orphan asylum, an institution so gruesome that its children suffered a death rate four times worse than that of children in general. Forty-four percent of the children there died in 1897. The following year, with Straus’s milk the only change, the rate dropped to 20 percent. Straus’s philanthropic crusade saw him provide support for 297 milk stations in 36 cities, which dispensed more than 24 million glasses and bottles of milk over a quarter-century. Gordon reports that the U.S. infant mortality rate dropped from 125.1 per thousand in 1891 to 15.8 in 1925. Straus directly saved an estimated 445,800 children’s lives, and his crusade for mandatory pasteurization indirectly saved millions more lives.