In 1950, childhood injury was leading cause of child death. Enter Dr. Wheatley
AlysonSulaski Wyckoff, Associate Editor
Did you know?
Ten years before he became AAP president, George M. Wheatley, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP (1909-2008),
helped start a committee that set the Academy on a path to reduce the growing threat
of injuries in children. He accomplished this not as a pediatrician in practice or
on a medical school faculty but as an insurance company executive.
“It was an idea whose time had come.” That’s how Dr. Wheatley described his influence
heading up the new AAP Accident Prevention Committee, launched in 1950 while he was
vice president for health at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. (now MetLife).
It began in March of that year, when the AAP executive board discussed a letter from
a member suggesting a committee be formed to explore childhood accidents and advise
pediatricians on these issues. The board agreed, turning to Dr. Wheatley for his expertise.
Statistics revealed that children were threatened more by accidents than communicable
diseases, Dr. Wheatley noted in his AAP oral history (http://bit.ly/2wodzjx). In addition, data on frequency and types of accidents (falls, poisonings, burns)
showed many were associated with children’s stage of development. But staffers at
the National Safety Council — the main organization promoting injury prevention at
the time — were not child health experts.
That’s where pediatrics came in.
Dr. Wheatley pushed pediatricians to be aware of the risks of accidents and to educate
families about prevention. He said doctors were influential health communicators,
that it was time to address “this formidable enemy of child health.”
In a 1948 Pediatrics editorial, he wrote: “Accidents not only kill more children after infancy than does
any single disease but also, in the ages from one to 14 inclusive, accidents take
as many lives as pneumonia, diarrhea and enteritis, measles, diphtheria, meningitis,
poliomyelitis, whooping cough, and scarlet fever combined” (http://bit.ly/2wowtXq).
Physicians, he said, should “approach accidents with the same inquiring mind that
we bring to the study of disease.”
To address the problems, members of the accident prevention committee focused on education,
engineering and legislation.
They gathered data from surveys and questionnaires, and partnered with groups such
as U.S. Children’s Bureau, the National Safety Council, Metropolitan Life and even
manufacturing organizations to launch a sustained national effort to reduce accidents.
They had the foresight to use a public health and data-driven approach, laying a foundation
for future efforts, noted Lynn M. Olson, Ph.D., AAP vice president of research.
“It was a very powerful and smart strategy,” Dr. Olson said. “Pediatricians were truly
the leaders helping to make this happen” (see resource).
The effort brought about legislative change in areas such as lowering the lead content
of paint and regulating the manufacture of highly flammable clothing. A subcommittee
on poison prevention helped educate both professionals and the public. The subcommittee
eventually merged with the Committee on Accident and Poison Prevention, later named
the Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention. A section on injury and poison prevention
also was started, and now the committee and section have been replaced by the Council
on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention.
Over the years, the council has made strides on issues such as sudden infant death
syndrome, child vehicle restraints, water safety and gun violence.
Dr. Wheatley worked at Metropolitan Life for 33 years and held other positions during
his pediatric career. He also chaired the AAP Committee on Rheumatic Fever and the
Committee on International Child Health, and he was a member of the Committees on
the Improvement of Child Health, School Health, Environmental Hazards and Nominations.
AAP Past President (2001-’02) Louis Z. Cooper, M.D., FAAP, who was acquainted with
Dr. Wheatley, recalled him as “a very old-school, kind, thoughtful (and) measured
For his numerous achievements, Dr. Wheatley received the 1964 Clifford G. Grulee Award
and the 1993 Injury and Poison Prevention Award.