What the Battle to Save Preemies Looked Like 75 Years Ago

Premature Babies 1939
Hansel Mieth—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Caption from LIFE. "Incubator Rooms' save premature babies' lives."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 out of every 8 infants born in the United States each year — that’s nearly 500,000 births — is a preterm baby. These preterm births, defined as occurring prior to 37 weeks of pregnancy, account for more than a third of all infant deaths in the U.S.; cost the American health care system tens of billions of dollars annually; and are “a leading cause of long-term neurological disabilities in children.” The battle to save preterm babies, meanwhile, rages on — with new theories of care and new technologies brought to bear on this wrenching and, for so many parents, frightening medical complication.

[MORE on LightBox: “Meeting Baby David: Elinor Carucci’s Powerful Portraits of Preemies”]

Seventy-five years ago, LIFE magazine took a look at the steps taken in one facility, the Boston Lying-In Hospital (founded in 1832), to care for premature babies. Yes, the machinery seen in these photos is, in large part, vastly different than what one sees nowadays in any hospital in virtually any industrialize nation on earth. But the hands-on care, the dedication of the nurses and doctors and the sheer scale of the effort to save the lives of these tiny babies will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in “preterm birth” wards.

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