Tuesday, February 23, 1999For decades, the perfect alibi
The search for the cause of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is definitely not one of science's finer moments. Richard Firstman and Jamie Talan's The Death of Innocents (Bantam, 1997) documents how the blinkered theories of U.S. research paediatrician Dr. Alfred Steinschneider provided murderous parents with an alibi for more than two decades.
In 1972, Steinschneider published a landmark study in which he argued that SIDS was caused by a breathing disorder that ran in families.
Two of the five infants Steinschneider wrote about in his paper were Molly and Noah Hoyt. Their three siblings had all died unexpectedly and with no medical explanation. And although Molly and Noah were under Steinschneider's care during their short lives, they, too, met untimely ends.
Steinschneider, like-minded colleagues, and SIDS organizations all actively discouraged any discussion of foul play in the death of such infants. Indeed, many of these "experts" routinely advised police investigators and prosecutors that multiple SIDS deaths in a single family were no cause for concern.
Undeterred by a paucity of evidence to support his theory, Steinschneider believed a gizmo that monitored babies' breathing patterns was the answer. As a result, tens of thousands of U.S. children were sent home with unreliable equipment -- alarms commonly went off dozens of times a night. Parents were told their children's lives depended on them rushing to their offspring's sides on every occasion and resuscitating them if necessary.
Twenty-three years after two-month-old Noah Hoyt was buried in a lonely cemetery, his mother, Waneta Hoyt, confessed to police that she had deliberately smothered all five of her children.
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