[back] Ratner


Illinois USA
(d. 1997)

Tribute to Dr. Herbert Ratner  by Nancy Jo Bykowski

Many were saddened to hear of the death in December 1997 of Dr. Herbert Ratner, whose philosophy was a formative influence on La Leche League. The book THE LLLOVE STORY sums up his contributions:

Dr. Herbert Ratner's influence has been subtle, but his impact profound. It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of his contributions to La Leche League. He is totally supportive of breastfeeding. But it is his respect for nature, his dedication to home and family, and his philosophy of life that have contributed so much to LLL.

Dr. Ratner became involved with LLL in the early years because of his long-standing friendship with Founder Mary White and her husband, Dr. Gregory White. They met while Dr. White was still in medical school at Loyola University in 1943. The Whites and the Ratners became fast friends. Mary recalls, "I'm sure it was Herb's influence that helped me to learn and grow in my mothering over the years. He had a delightful sense of humor and could have us all laughing at his jokes. Our whole family loved Herb dearly."

When LLL first began, Dr. Ratner was the Health Commissioner for Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago located near Franklin Park. His professional expertise and position in the community lent credibility to LLL's information. The Founders counted on Dr. Ratner's medical expertise to provide information for mothers with questions about the medical aspects of breastfeeding. He also reviewed the medical information in LLL publications.

The Founders and Dr. Ratner met for a momentous discussion in March of 1958. It was at that meeting that Dr. Ratner helped the Founders to see that their focus was broader than just the facts and figures of breastfeeding--that it encompassed a commitment to good mothering through breastfeeding. In many ways, LLL owes the clarity of its philosophical vision to Dr. Ratner. Many would agree that this was his greatest gift to LLL.

In the early years, each Series included five meetings, with the fifth reserved especially for fathers. Dr. Ratner led these meetings for many years. The combination of his scholarly knowledge and warm humor reassured fathers that their wives were doing what was best for their children. He also held separate parenting discussion groups that were open to couples in the area. Founder Marian Tompson recalls turning to her husband after attending their first such meeting and saying, "Tom, we've been doing the right thing after all!" Many who were privileged to attend those meetings remember them with great fondness. Judy Torgus, Director of the LLLI Publications Department, recalls that those meetings helped to build a sense of community among like-minded mothers in the area. "Dr. Ratner's approach was so supportive and he influenced many who were active in LLL in the early years." Dr. Ratner's influence spread beyond the local community through his quarterly publication Child and Family, which often included articles about breastfeeding and parenting.

Dr. Ratner's style encouraged everyone to get involved, which made for a thought-provoking discussion instead of a lecture. Even when others disagreed, he managed to show respect for differing opinions so that what ensued was an informative discussion, not an argument. His example was a subtle influence on the way that LLL Leaders conducted meetings and may have been the precursor to conversational-style meetings that work so well in Groups around the world today.

When the much-loved 1963 edition of THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING was written, the chapter on nutrition was reprinted almost verbatim from Dr. Ratner's words. He also provided a tempering influence when the Founders felt they wanted to make absolute statements about some of what they had learned about breastfeeding. He counseled them to be careful about the claims that they put into print. Over the years, emerging research has almost always supported the ideas that the Founders had gathered from their own experiences and the experiences of mothers that they had helped. But in 1963, much of that research had yet to be done.

When LLL started holding seminars for physicians in 1973, Dr. Ratner was on the committee. Founder Marian Tompson, who organized the seminars, remembers fondly how he used to stop by her office faithfully every week to offer his insights and help her plan the next meeting. For many years, he acted as the moderator for the Physicians' Seminars, taking responsibility for keeping the discussion on track.

Dr. Ratner was a member of LLLI's Health Advisory Council for more than 40 years. During that time, he spoke at many LLL gatherings, including the 1997 LLLI Conference in Washington DC. Attendees were warmed by his great affection for children. Mary White recalls, "Parents who attended his sessions at an LLL Conference came away caught up in Herb's enthusiasm for babies. Nine months later, many of them were welcoming another new baby into their families."

Mary continues, "Best of all, he was his own loving self, listening patiently to the worries and questions of countless mothers and fathers, and in his gentle, uncritical way helping them find the answers. We shall miss Herb very much, but he has left us a wonderful legacy which will be passed on to all who come in contact with LLL. Dr. Herbert Ratner was truly a father to La Leche League. Thanks, Herb, for so much."

We found this article which was written by Dr. Ratner in the first issue of BREASTFEEDING ABSTRACTS, LLL's newsletter for health professionals. It offers a glimpse into the heart and mind of a pioneer in the support of breastfeeding.

MD Musings

We are living in a wonderful, scientific age. The secrets of nature, great and small, are steadily being uncovered. Millions of dollars, thousands of thousands of investigators and hundred of thousands of laboratories, in universities, industry and elsewhere are committed to this pursuit. What we never stop to fully appreciate, however, is the degree to which the time, energy, and money devoted to research is a measure of our present ignorance.

This ignorance not only pertains to what we don't know, it also pertains to what we believe to be true today which will he proven false tomorrow. It was the famous Sir William Osler of Johns Hopkins who once said to his medical students, "What I am teaching you is only half true, the trouble is I don't know which half is which."

To bridge the gap of ignorance, to get from what is unknown to man to what is known to nature, physicians must turn to nature's norms for guidance. Breast milk (and breastfeeding) is that kind of norm. Breast milk, the only food uniquely made for human beings, and upon which man has thrived, has been with us since before science existed. It provides a norm that can be followed even when scientists--not knowing all the reasons why breast milk is best for human babies--have spoken against it by opting for artificial formulas as equally good or superior.

Now that pediatricians throughout the world have discovered the superiority of breast milk, we can appreciate the wisdom of those women who did not forsake nature for the infant-feeding style of their day.

Herbert Ratner, MD
LLLI Senior Medical Advisor
Summer 1981

Tribute by Nancy Jo Bykowski, Managing Editor
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 15 No. 2, March - April 1998, pp. 48-49.