Remarkable Woman of the Month, June 2020

In these difficult times we wish to recognize the heroics of the health-care professionals who are saving lives every day by honoring those of the past. Some of those may have been suffragists. All were brave.

Sara Josephine Baker, MD, 1873 – 1945

Sara Josephine Baker hadn’t planned on becoming a doctor. Born in 1873, the third daughter in a family of four children, she attended a small, undemanding school in Poughkeepsie, NY. Her father was a successful attorney and Josephine planned on attending Vassar just as her mother had before her. (Her family dropped the Sara part of her name when she was quite young and just called her Josephine, or Jo.)

But Josephine’s pleasant life changed dramatically when her father and brother died from typhoid fever, possibly from contaminated water in the nearby Hudson River; at the age of sixteen she was left to support her mother and disabled sister. In a daring and controversial decision she announced that she would become a doctor. The deaths of her father and brother may have convinced her of the need for good medical care, and although there were then very few women in the medical field, she knew that as a doctor she could always find work. After a year of intense study she was accepted at Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1894. The school had been founded in 1868 by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the US to hold a medical degree, and was the only medical school that would accept women. She graduated in 1899.

But Josephine soon discovered that almost no one would seek the advice of a woman doctor, especially a man. She made a small living as a medical inspector for a life insurance company, which led to a part time position as a medical inspector for the City of New York. In 1902 Josephine was offered the job of treating the frighteningly huge numbers of ill children on the west side of Manhattan. The area—appropriately called Hell’s Kitchen—was home to thousands of poor families and was also home to infant dysentery, a disease that claimed the lives of an average of 1,500 babies each week. It paid the remarkable salary of one hundred dollars a month.

Josephine began a program of having nurses visit new mothers to teach them the values of routine hygiene, pasteurized milk, and exposure to fresh air. The program was a huge success, and led to her employment as the Head of the Division of Child Hygiene, the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Josephine was the first woman to hold an administrative position in any health department in the nation.

In 1907 she was appointed assistant to the health inspector and was charged with another challenge –the arrest of Mary Mallon, better known as “Typhoid Mary.” Mallon had been working as a cook, and refused to stop cooking when told she was a carrier of typhoid fever, even though she herself had never been very ill. Josephine finally traced her to her present place of employment, and arrested her with the help of a young policeman. “I sat on her all the way to the hospital,” Josephine later recalled. “It was like being in a cage with an angry lion.” Because she refused to stop cooking for a living, the Health Department was forced to keep Mary apart from society for the rest of her life, and she never stopped blaming Josephine for the part she played in helping to make that happen.

While working to help impoverished families improve their lives, Josephine became active in the woman suffrage movement. “It was unfair and absurd,” she said, “ that the male half of the world should possess responsibilities from which we were excluded.” Like most suffragists she believed the vote would result in decreased corruption, and the elimination of child labor. She was on the committee chosen to visit President Wilson in the White House, and spent much of her limited free time marching in parades, and making impromptu speeches from the back of her open car.

In 1918 Josephine was immersed in another battle, as the pandemic of influenza raced across the world, eventually claiming 675,000 lives in the US alone. In her autobiography she recounts an eerie deja vu experience: “There was a frightful sweep of disease, and not enough doctors and nurses to care for the cases, nor undertakers to bury the dead.” The nation’s schools were closed, but not in New York City. Josephine argued that the children could be better cared for in school where they received regular examinations and the few reported cases could be treated immediately. Her gamble paid off – the number of cases in school children was negligible and even absences from other illnesses were reduced.

Like many women of her era who had chosen traditionally male professions, Josephine often faced disapproval and ostracism. She was no stranger to failure—some of what she considered her best ideas met with defeat. But she also met with unprecedented success. When she began her public health career in 1908, the infant mortality rate in New York City was 144 per 1,000 live births. When she retired in 1923, it was 66, one of the lowest of any of the major cities in the United States or Europe. Josephine spent her life trying to secure good health care for all women and children, but she never forgot the thrill of saving a single life, the “joy she saw in a mother’s eyes when her baby was assured of health.” Although her life had been a difficult struggle, she said in her autobiography, “I would not have any of it different in any way. It was an altogether satisfactory life.” She died in February, 1945.

Thank you, Sara Josephine Baker, MD!

One Response

  1. Natalie Naylor June 2, 2020 at 7:37 am | | Reply

    An interesting and inspiring account– thank you for introducing me to this suffragist and public health worker whom I had never heard of before.
    Natalie Naylor

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