Some called Mary White a revolutionary who wore pearls.
A mother of 11, she and six other moms “challenged society, changed the culture and taught the world that babies were born to be breastfed,” according to a history of La Leche League by Kaye Lowman.
One of seven “founding mothers” of the league, which promotes breast-feeding for infant and maternal health, Mrs. White died Thursday in River Forest at 93.
“Her family and her faith were everything to her,” said her daughter, Clare Daly. “I was saying the rosary with her when she slipped away.”
“We owe everything to Mary White,” said Diana West, a spokeswoman for the group. “Countless women throughout the world have been touched by the efforts Mary White championed.”
The first meeting of the league was held at Mrs. White’s Franklin Park home in 1956. Today, its members number millions across the globe. Its international headquarters remains in Chicago, where the founding mothers were clustered.
Mrs. White’s death was being mourned and discussed in a variety of languages on social media. She had had several strokes, according to Holly Stevens, development director for La Leche League International, who said just two of the group’s founders are still alive.
As Mrs. White’s health failed, she got “cards and letters from all over the world, thanking her for what she did for moms and babies,” her daughter said. “One woman wrote, ‘You gave me the courage to have a big family because you looked like you were having fun.'”
At La Leche league conventions, she was treated like a rock star, her daughter said: “People would say, ‘Oh, my word, I’m on an elevator with Mary White!'”
In the 1940s and 1950s, nursing was often viewed in developed nations — and, to an extent, in developing countries — as primitive and unsanitary. The creation of baby formula and notions of modernity and sterilization — not to mention Madison Avenue, Big Business and slogans like DuPont’s “Better Living Through Chemistry” — helped make breast-feeding seem like an antiquated, Third World practice. If a woman did it, some thought, “You were too poor to give your baby formula,” said Marian Tompson, another co-founder of the group.
“We always said, back in those days, that the three main obstacles to successful breast-feeding were doctors, hospitals and social pressures,” Mrs. White said in her La Leche League biography. “I think the desire to breast-feed was always there along with the conviction that ‘breast is best.’ We were not promoting a product that people had to be convinced about. But very few young mothers knew anything about the ‘how to.’ Women had forgotten the wisdom of previous generations.”
Her own first attempt at breast-feeding “was just like that of most mothers in the 1940s — disastrous!” her biography said. “There were strict feeding schedules, bottles of cows’ milk formula to be given after each nursing, and absolutely no encouragement.”
La Leche League had its origins at Wilder Park in Elmhurst. Mrs. White and Tompson were nursing, and other mothers “came up to us and talked about how they had wanted to breast-feed,” Tompson said.
“While other young mothers at the picnic were struggling with bottles and trying to heat formula,” league documents say, “Mary and Marian had no worries about milk for their little ones.”
Because Mrs. White started her family a littler earlier than the other founders, they and other women benefited from her wisdom and experience, Tompson said.
For example, “She told us the more frequently the mother nursed, the more milk she would have,” Tompson said. “She was a role model. She tried it out first. She was the one who could reassure us that, yes, this is normal.”
Tompson said Mrs. White was the first woman she ever saw nurse a child in public.
“It was the first time I realized you could breast-feed in front of other people and they didn’t have to have any idea what you were doing,” Tompson said.
Mary White’s husband, Dr. Gregory White, a family practitioner, was a champion of the group, West said, “encouraging mothers to help themselves and their babies grow and be healthier through breast-feeding.”
The founders co-authored “The Womanly Art of BreastFeeding,” printing it on mimeographed sheets of paper. It became a book. Today, 2 million copies later, it’s in its eighth edition, West said.
Starting the organization “was something we were all ready and willing to take on,” Mrs. White said in her league biography. “We had all discovered just how much joy there was in mothering our little ones and what fun it was being with them and learning all about them.”
Born Mary Kerwin, she grew up in Elmhurst and Oak Park and attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart boarding school in Lake Forest and Rosary College.
In addition to Clare Daly, Mrs. White is survived by daughters Mary Catherine Thornton, Anne, Mary Regina Stirton, Mary Dooley, Maureen Smillie and Elizabeth Dillon; sons Joseph, William and Michael; brothers Michael, Joseph and Paul; 61 grandchildren; and 101 great-grandchildren.
A wake is scheduled from 3 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at Drechsler, Brown & Williams Funeral Home in Oak Park. A funeral Mass is planned for 10 a.m. Friday at St. Luke’s Church in River Forest, with burial at Calvary Cemetery in Evanston.