Thursday, May 22, 2014

An Innocent Mistake - The Binghamton Salt Babies

In March of 1962,  Binghamton, New York and some of its residents were struck by a tragedy that would make national headlines, and would stick in my nine year old mind.  I never realized that, one day, I would make that community my home.

Back in September of 2009, and then again in September, 2012, I blogged about this tragedy, which led to the death of six babies and changes in the method of infant feedings in hospitals all over the United States. My post centered on speculation concerning if a certain woman seen downtown was the nurse accused of this mistake.  (I now doubt it, based on a conversation I had a couple of years ago with someone who worked at the hospital where this took place, although not at the time of the incident.)

Several people commented on my blog posts.  Some comments are heartbreaking.

An author, Jo Michaels, suggested I might want to write about this.  I wrapped some of my research into a "fictional memoir" I wrote for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November of 2012.  But as for writing that book - I couldn't bring myself to do it.  Even 50 plus years later, I suspect some of these babies (now grown, of course) still live in this community, as might their elderly parents or other relatives.  Some witnesses still live here.  The last thing I wanted to do is stir up emotions or cause any pain. 

But nothing would prevent me from reading newspapers and other "period" coverage of the event.

I started my research, during NaNoWriMo, by reading articles in the March 23, 1962 issue of Time magazine and the April 27, 1962 issue of Life magazine. The story of the Binghamton Salt babies started out as a normal day at Binghamton General Hospital on March 6, 1962, according to the Life article:

"In the formula room a white-capped practical nurse, licensed by the State of New York and on this day in charge of preparing the babies' bottles, lifted the lid from an aluminum two-pound sugar container and saw that it was only half full. She decided to refill the can.

Following the custom of the hospital, she placed the can on a metal cart, rolled it down the corridor to the elevator, descended to the basement and pushed it along a subterranean tunnel into the hospital's main kitchen. She lifted the two-pound can from the cart and placed it on the floor between her feet in front of two identical, shiny 20 gallon containers standing side by side under a low shelf in dim light. Am small paper tag pasted to the lid of one big container bore the word "Sugar" in plain handwriting Another tag like it was attached to the body of the container.  On the other lid the label was born, but on its fragments the letters "S" and "lt" could be made out. "

How many times was this scene repeated in other hospitals throughout the United States, I wonder. A dimly lit room? A salt container with a worn label?

The Life magazine article continued:

“The practical nurse reached into one of the containers and grasped a scoop. With two scoopfuls she all but filled the small can, enough to supply the formula room for about a week.  She wheeled the cart back upstairs.

By the next night, Wednesday March 7, there was trouble in maternity. Five days later, six babies had died in convulsions." 

This was only the beginning of a story with all the elements of a top notch drama - tragedy, mystery, an accused nurse herself a mother, a bomb threat, a race against time to find a way to save the poisoned babies, and much, much more.  And I declined the writing opportunity.

Thank heavens an award winning documentary filmmaker, Brian Frey, decided to make a documentary for our local PBS station, WSKG. Last night, he was going to share his research and archival material, but my back wasn't up to it.  Regretfully, I did not attend his talk.

A promo for the documentary has apparently been on You Tube since 2010, so I wonder when this film will be released.  I suppose I would have found out tonight.

When I do find out more, I plan to blog about it.

Is there a famous or locally famous event that took place in your childhood, which has fascinated you every since?


  1. Oh, Alana! What a heartbreaking episode! That poor nurse, those poor babies! I'll be watching for your follow-up blog.

    1. The nurse was fully innocent - but this was so sad, all around. I hope this documentary is done with compassion. (I think it will be. I've seen at least one other of his local documentary films, and it was excellent.)

  2. Alana, I haven't heard of this story until reading your blog. How very tragic for all concerned. I can't even imagine what those poor people went through.

    1. I can not, either. And, I can't imagine the sufferings of that nurse and what really did become of her. I hope she had a good life afterwards.

  3. What a shocking accident. It's slips like these that cause so much trauma. I did something silly once and have always regretted it. I put a bucket of very hot water on the floor close to my baby. She made her first ever move toward it over the floor and tipped the contents onto herself, scalding her leg badly. The pale skin took about 20 years to change to the normal color.

  4. Never heard of this. Very tragic indeed. Sad how it often takes incidents like this to improve systems and methods...


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