A Brief History of Pediatrics

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Throughout history, dating back to ancient Greek times, doctors have provided medical care to people of all ages, including children. Despite this, pediatrics is a relatively new field of medicine.

The term “pediatrics” is derived from the two Greek words, pais meaning child and iatros meaning doctor and healer. As such it is intended to mean the healer of children.

Early History

Traditional medical doctors cared for patients of any age, including both the young and the old, with little specialization. Some points throughout early history in relation to pediatrics are outlined in the timeline below.

1552 BC: The Ebers Papyrus discussed many topics including breastfeeding, cure for worms and treatment of ocular diseases.
400 BC: Hippocrates wrote about several issues relating to pediatric health including asthma, cephalhematoma, clubfoot, diarrhea, hydrocephalus, mumps, scrofula and worms.
100 AD: Soranus of Ephesus noted the fingernail test as a means to check the fat content and quality of breast milk.
200 AD: Galen described cases of children with ear discharge, pneumonia and intestinal prolapse.
990 AD: Avicenna wrote about health conditions such as convulsions, meningitis, tetanus, umbilical abscess and worms.

Middle Ages

The first pediatric hospital in the Western world is generally accepted to be the Hôpital des Enfants Malades, the Hospital for Sick Children in English, which opened in 1802 in Paris. The hospital is famed for the care of patients only up to the age of 15 years.

The beginning of pediatric care centers in France then led to the spread to other countries throughout Europe. Soon afterwards, other pediatric hospitals were opened in Germany, Russia, Austria, Poland and England in the 19th century. The first hospital for children in the United States was opened in Philadelphia in 1855.

The Enfants-Trouvés, a Hospice for Found-Children in English, was founded in the 1600s in Paris, France. This was the first of a gradual transformation to separate institutions intended for the care of children with illnesses, separated from adults in hospitals.

George Frederic Still was an instrumental physician from England who devoted his work to pediatrics as a specialty. He wrote the textbook entitled Common Disorders and Diseases of Children, which went on to guide the practice of many successive physicians who specialized in pediatrics.

Dr. Abraham Jacobi is considered to be the father of pediatrics in America. He was a German pediatrician who came to New York in 1853 and formed several societies devoted to pediatric health, as well as children’s departments in the hospitals of New York.

Modern History

Pediatric doctor exams newborn baby girl with stethoscope in hospital. Image Copyright: WeStudio / Shutterstock
Pediatric doctor exams newborn baby girl with stethoscope in hospital. Image Copyright: WeStudio / Shutterstock

The field of pediatrics as we know it today in the United States originates from the American Pediatric Society and American Academy of Pediatrics, which began in the 1930s. Although earlier research and recordings included information about children, pediatrics as a separate specialty was distinguished later.

Today, pediatrics as a specialty is certified and regulated by the American Pediatric Society and American Academy of Pediatrics in the United States, and similar bodies in other countries around the world.

Pediatricians can now also study and practice a subspecialty of pediatrics, which focuses on specific types of ailments and health conditions in children. This progression began in the 20th century and more subspecialties continue to be created as the interest and need in certain areas arises.


Further Reading

Last Updated: Mar 25, 2019

Yolanda Smith

Written by

Yolanda Smith

Yolanda graduated with a Bachelor of Pharmacy at the University of South Australia and has experience working in both Australia and Italy. She is passionate about how medicine, diet and lifestyle affect our health and enjoys helping people understand this. In her spare time she loves to explore the world and learn about new cultures and languages.


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