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Faculty Spotlight: Ruth Lawrence

Strong Kids Newsletter

Seven editions and 35 years later, Ruth Lawrence, M.D., still has a few things to say about her publisher. “They put a soft cover on my book last time. It was cheaper, they said. But it makes people think it’s not important,” said Lawrence, beckoning to the bookshelf behind her. “A thousand pages of well-documented science needs a cover.”

Ruth LawrenceLawrence still has a few things to say about a lot, actually — formula companies, her grandkids, the state government.

But it’s the books she’s focused on at the moment. The 8th edition of Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Professional is due out soon.

“I’m updating certain chapters, but I’m starting to think it may be easier to start fresh,” she said. “Because I’ll take all this time and write this beautiful paragraph and put it in, and then I’ll say ‘Oh, wait, I already said that.’”

Lawrence is writing this edition the same way she wrote the previous seven — over late nights at her dining room table. It’s a habit that began out of necessity from when her daylight hours were spent working full-time as a neonatologist while raising nine children. (Sleep occupied a distant fourth place on her daily agenda.)

And for those who know her, it should come as little surprise that — even with her University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry class on the verge of its 65th anniversary — Lawrence has given little thought to retirement. She continues to arrive to the Medical Center every weekday, tirelessly answering calls from physicians and patients, while continuing to educate providers on the importance of breastfeeding.

Her career needed little in the way of validation. But recently, admirers have taken notice — earlier this year, she was honored with a professorship.

“After all these years, I’ve finally got a Chair to sit in,” she quipped.

Storied career

When Lawrence arrived at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, she was told by one of the bigwigs in the Department of Anatomy to give up on medical school and go home to have babies.

Lawrence would always say she followed half of his advice, continuing on through school, but also taking the time to have nine children.

From early on in her career, Lawrence became a staunch advocate for breastfeeding. For many decades, her fight was an uphill battle — 75 percent of infants in the United States were consuming formula in the 1970’s.  

And she’s still not particularly happy with the way formula companies manipulated the public into believing their product was better for infants.

“Mother Nature had a wonderful plan for mothers and babies,” she said. “But some entrepreneurs thought they could make a buck or two, and they did everything they could to destroy breastfeeding. And unfortunately, the undereducated and underfunded believed their message.”

Hoping to combat the misinformation, she wrote the first edition of her book, which was published in 1979.

At the time, her publisher had wanted to change the tagline from “A Guide for the Medical Professional” to “A Guide for Doctors and Nurses.” Lawrence refused.

“I said that if you put ‘nurses’ on the cover, no doctors will pick it up. So instead, they hired a nurse to copy everything from my book and write a competing book for nurses,” she said, a sly smile crossing her face. “It never sold.”

She also started the Ruth Lawrence Poison & Drug Information Center in 1954, which was the first center in the United States to provide a poison and drug information hotline to the general public. One of the top performing poison control centers in the country, it remained in operation until 2010, when the state government, facing a budget crisis, pulled its funding. The move was shortsighted, said Lawrence, as much of the work done by the poison centers was preventative.

“They thought that if they closed a couple of poison centers, they could save big bucks,” she said. “Well, it’s cost (the state) double what it cost before.”

Three generations

But for Lawrence, there’s little time to dwell on the past. Thanks to her work, and that of other advocates, the scales have finally tipped back towards breastfeeding in developed countries, but struggles remain in the third world.

“In developing countries, it’s truly a matter of life or death,” said Lawrence. “Children not breastfed in developing countries have a 50 percent chance of dying in the first year.”

Now that they are grown and have children of their own, Lawrence’s sons and daughters can only marvel at her energy.

“Growing up and looking ahead, I naively thought ‘Oh, I’m going to be a doctor and have kids and do all that — just like mom,’” said Lawrence’s daughter Barbara Asselin, M.D., professor of Pediatrics and Oncology at URMC. “Then, as I started to take those steps, I said ‘Oh my goodness, how did my mom do it?’ I’ve had lots of those moments.”

Her grandchildren are starting to realize the same, especially those who are also following her into medicine.

“When I was young, she was just Grandma,” said Patrick Asselin, son to Barbara Asselin and grandson to Lawrence, who is in his second year of medical school in SMD. “But when I started thinking about medicine, I started hearing so many stories about her, and I understand why she has so many people looking to her for advice.”

In terms of projects, Lawrence has no end in sight — that’s why retirement is far from her mind. And for all the things she does still have to say, she’s hoping that, someday, breastfeeding is something people won’t have to talk about all that much.

Said Lawrence: “I would like for it to remain the norm, for it to become so natural that it’s not even an issue — that we don’t have to talk about it all the time.”