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White poison? the social consequences of milk consumption, 1850–1930

Atkins, P.J.


P.J. Atkins


This paper seeks to adduce evidence on the social consequences of milk consumption in the period 1850–1930. It is shown that the poor quality of supply partly resulted from the nature of the marketing system, with adulteration and the use of chemical preservatives as other factors. Local authority regulation and central government legislation were very slow in controlling the cleanliness of production and sale. Milk was heavily contaminated with bacteria and was responsible for spreading a variety of diseases such as scarlet fever and tuberculosis. Infants not wholly breastfed were particularly vulnerable to diarrhoeal infections. Improvements such as pasteurization and bottling were slow to spread and are unlikely to have had much impact before the 1920s. Overall it is argued that ill-health caused by dirty milk was more serious, and its amelioration much later than previously documented.


Atkins, P. (1992). White poison? the social consequences of milk consumption, 1850–1930. Social History of Medicine, 5(2), 207-227.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Aug 1, 1992
Deposit Date Dec 12, 2012
Journal Social History of Medicine
Print ISSN 0951-631X
Electronic ISSN 1477-4666
Publisher Oxford University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 5
Issue 2
Pages 207-227
Keywords Bovine tuberculosis, Breast feeding, Diarrhoea, Infant mortality, Milk, London, Pasteurization, Scarlet fever