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Sara Josephine Baker

Dr. Sara Josephine Baker
Born November 15, 1873
Poughkeepsie, New York
Died February 22, 1945
Princeton, New Jersey
Nationality United States
Institutions Assistant Surgeon General, Professional Woman Rep. to the League of Nations
Alma mater New York Infirmary Medical College
Known for public health

Sara Josephine Baker (November 15, 1873 – February 22, 1945) was an American physician notable for contributions to public health in New York City. She is best known for commenting on urban conditions for the poor in her statement that a person was more likely to die by being born in the United States than as a soldier in World War I.



Baker was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1873 to a wealthy Quaker family. At the age of 16, Baker decided on a career in medicine after her father and brother died of Typhoid.[1] After studying chemistry and biology at home, she enrolled in the New York Infirmary Medical College, a medical school for women, founded by the sisters and physicians Elizabeth Blackwell and Emily Blackwell, and graduated in 1898.[2] In 1901 Baker passed the civil service exam and qualified to be a medical inspector at the Department of Health, working as a school inspector. Upon working in these schools, she was offered the opportunity to lower the death rate in Hell's Kitchen, which was considered the worst slum in New York at the turn of the century with as many as 4,500 people dying every week. Baker decided to focus on the infant mortality rate, as babies accounted for about 1,500 deaths every seven days. Most of the deaths were due to dysentery.[1]

Public health

Baker and a group of nurses started to train mothers in how to care for their babies: how to clothe infants to keep them from getting too hot, how to feed them a good diet, how to keep them from suffocating, and how to keep them clean. She set up a milk station where clean, pasteurized milk was handed out to the indigent families in Hell's Kitchen. Pasteurized milk was a new innovation. Commercial milk at that time was often contaminated, or mixed with water and chalk to maximize profit. Baker also invented an infant formula made out of water, calcium carbonate, lactose, and cow milk. This enabled mothers to go to work so they could support their families. In 1910, to further help working mothers, Baker started the 'Little Mothers League' to train older sisters to care for their young siblings.[1] She also aided in the prevention of blindness due to gonorrhea: to prevent blindness, babies were given drops of silver nitrate in their eyes, but often the bottles in which the silver nitrate were kept would become unsanitary or too highly concentrated, causing blindness anyway. Baker started using small containers made out of beeswax that held enough silver nitrate for one eye. This way the silver nitrate would stay at a safe level and wouldn't get dirty. Through Josephine Baker's efforts, infants were much safer than they had been the previous year (blindness decreased from 300 babies/year to 3/year within 2 years). But there was still one area where infancy was dangerous: at birth. Babies were all too often delivered by midwives with no guarantee of expertise. Baker convinced New York City to license midwives in order to ensure a degree of quality and expertise.

While Baker was campaigning to license midwives, treat blindness, encourage breastfeeding, provide safe pasteurized milk, and educate mothers, older children were still getting sick and malnourished. Baker worked to make sure each school was given its own doctor and nurse, and the children were routinely checked for diseases like lice and trachoma. This system worked so well that diseases once rampant in schools become almost obsolete.

Early in her career, she had helped to twice catch Mary Mallon, also known as Typhoid Mary. Mallon was the first known healthy carrier of typhoid who infected countless people through her job as a cook. Mallon was not the only repeat offender in being a typhoid-contagious cook, but she was the only one put in isolation for the rest of her life. It may have been relevant that the other offenders were male, or that they were not of Irish heritage.[3]

Professional recognition

Josephine Baker was becoming famous, so much so that New York University Medical School asked her to lecture there on children’s health, or 'child hygiene', as it was known at the time. Baker said she would if she could also enroll in the School. The school initially turned her down, but eventually acquiesced after looking for a male lecturer to match her knowledge. So in 1917 Baker graduated with a doctorate in public health. After the United States entered World War I, Baker became even better known. Most of this publicity was generated from her comment to a New York Times reporter. She told him that it was safer to be on the front lines than to be born in the United States because the soldiers died at a rate of 4%, whereas babies died at a rate of 12%. She was able to start a lunch program for school children due to the publicity this comment brought. She made use of the publicity around the high rate of young men being declared 4F (not eligible for draft due to poor health) as a motivating factor for support in her work on improving the health of children.

Baker was offered a job in London as health director of public schools, a job in France taking care of war refugees, and a job in the United States as Assistant Surgeon General. In 1923 she retired, but she didn't stop working.

Josephine Baker became the first woman to be a professional representative to the League of Nations when she represented the United States in the Health Committee. Many government positions, departments, and committees were created because of her work including the Federal Children's Bureau and Public Health Services (now the Department of Health and Human Services) and child hygiene departments in every state. She was also active in many groups and societies including over twenty-five medical societies and the New York State Department of Health. She also became the President of the American Medical Women's Association and wrote 250 articles (both professional and for the popular press), 4 books, and her autobiography before her death in 1945.

Personal life

Josephine Baker wrote very little about her personal life, however her partner for much of the later part of her life was Ida Alexa Ross Wylie, a novelist and essayist from England, and self-identified as a 'woman-oriented woman'. Wylie is best known for the novel "The Daughter of Brahma", and "Life with George", an autobiography. When Baker retired in 1923, she started to run their household while writing her autobiography. In 1935, Baker and Wylie decided to move to Princeton, New Jersey, together with their friend Louise Pearce. Pearce was a biological researcher at the Rockefeller Institute, working on animal models for trypanosoma (African sleeping sickness) and syphilis, and the testing of treatments. Pearce later became the president of the Women's Medical College of Philadelphia. While Baker and Pearce left little documentation of their personal lives, Wylie was open about her orientation. But she did not identify either Baker or Pearce in her writings. Wylie's papers, including some personal letters, were donated to the Women's Medical College of Philadelphia (now the Medical College of Philadelphia), where they are available in the college's archives.


  1. ^ a b c "Sara Josephine Baker." Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present. Online. Gale Group, 2008.
  2. ^ "Sara Josephine Baker." World of Health. Thomson Gale, 2006.
  3. ^ Judith Walzer Leavitt, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public's Health (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996)

Further reading



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