Sara Josephine Baker was a pioneer in public health care and preventive medicine in the early part of the twentieth century. Josephine Baker (as she preferred to be called) was born into a wealthy New York family. When her father died, she decided to become a physician, an unheard of ambition for girls of that time. Finding herself ill-prepared for medical school, Baker studied biology and chemistry at home for a year before applying to the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, one of the few colleges that offered women work in medical clinics. She entered school at 18 andreceived her M.D. in 1898. Baker first served as an intern at the New EnglandHospital for Women and Children in Boston where she learned the harsh realities of sickness and death in turn-of-the-century slums. Once, while taking care of a sick woman, Baker had to defend herself by kicking a drunk husband down the stairs.
Baker returned to New York and opened a medical practice with a classmate, Dr. Florence M. Laighton. Unfortunately, women doctors were such a rarity at that time that they had few patients and had to close the practice. Baker thenbecame a medical inspector for the City of New York Department of Health. Unlike other medical examiners who never left their offices, Baker went to the people, climbing stairs into slum apartments and entering schools to check onsick children. In the poverty-stricken parts of New York City, she saw first-hand how filthy conditions led to the spread of disease. She went to the Bowery in the middle of the night to vaccinate against smallpox, during the meningitis epidemic in 1905 she worked tirelessly diagnosing and treating the disease, and also helped the Department of Health track down "Typhoid Mary" Mallon, the infamous carrier of that deadly disease. Baker was a crusader in encouraging school children to report and treat common problems of the time such as head lice and eye and skin infections. With Lina Rogers (who may have beenthe first public health nurse in the country) she started the school nurse program in New York City.
Baker was familiar with the statistics: one-third of the deaths reported in New York City were of children under five years old, and one-fifth were babiesless than a year old. Knowing from experience that poor people had little education and knew little about disease prevention, she started a pioneer project in the summer of 1908, sending 30 school nurses into homes of newborns educating mothers on caring for their infants. The results were dramatic--1200 fewer deaths that year--which led the city to form the Division of Child Hygiene, later called the Bureau of Child Health. This was the first taxpayer-supported agency in the world devoted to the health of children. As director of this bureau, Baker spent the next 15 years instituting sound practices that improved the lives of thousands of children. Among her observations, Baker noticed that there were hundreds of children suffering from preventable blindness. She helped design and distribute a dispenser for administering the compound, silver nitrate to the eyes of all newborns. This compound helps prevent infection and blindness that results from the mother's infection with thesexually-transmitted disease gonorrhea. Baker also created a design for newborn clothing so that babies could be dressed in easily managed layers:underwear and outerwear could be laid out flat so that a baby's arm could bepulled through all layers at once. Sewing companies produced patterns for these clothes which became very popular and affordable.
Despite all of Baker's achievements, some bureaucrats sought to have her dismissed; however, mothers whose children had benefitted marched in protest andher position was saved. Baker was no stranger to gender bias in her professional life. Members of one medical organization narrow-mindedly made comments like "it (her program) was ruining medical practice by keeping babies well." When a group of Brooklyn physicians sought to eliminate the Bureau of Child Hygiene, Baker took it as a compliment and continued about her work. She oftenwrote using just her initials--Dr. S.J. Baker. When she was invited to present a paper in Philadelphia, the audience of male physicians were shocked and astounded to discover her gender. Despite this lack of support from the medical profession, she wrote numerous respected books on the health of children. She was also an activist for women's right to vote, and a successful fund-raiser for all causes in which she believed.