At a time and in a field that barely tolerated women, Dr. Sara Josephine Baker was a pioneer in public health and a champion of preventative medicine. Dr. Baker saved countless immigrant lives by forming measures that reduced maternal, infant, and child mortality. Her work with poor mothers and children became a model for cities across the country and helped establish the United States Children’s Bureau in 1912.
Dr. Baker wrote 250 published articles around preventive medicine and five books on childcare and hygiene. As a woman physician, feminist and lesbian, she undoubtedly faced significant discrimination making her high-profile career that much more exceptional. This June Pride Month, we celebrate Dr. Sara Josephine Baker (1873–1945).
Sarah Baker was born in Poughkeepsie, NY, in 1873 to Jenny and Daniel Baker. Both her mother and father were highly educated, and the expectation for Sarah was that she would attend Vassar like her mother.
When her father and brother died suddenly, Sarah became responsible for herself and her mother’s livelihood. She gave up a scholarship to Vassar and instead enrolled in the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, hoping to secure a position as a doctor.
Baker was among the first generation of women to attend medical school, and she benefitted from powerful female role models, including her school’s founders, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell.
Upon her graduation in 1898, she served a year internship in Boston at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, serving some of the city’s poorest people. There she saw firsthand the living conditions of tenement housing – crowded, unsanitary, and neglected – were newly arrived immigrants raised their children. And she gained a keen understanding of poverty’s detrimental effect on one’s health. This awareness shaped the rest of her career.
Career in Public Health
It was called the “suicide ward” – that’s how New York City health inspectors described the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century. The killers of the day – measles, dysentery, and typhoid fever found plenty of carriers within the tightly-packed neighborhoods.
Rundown, overcrowded tenement buildings without basic sanitation or plumbing provided fertile breeding grounds for these dangerous diseases – taking as many as 4,500 infants and children’s lives every week. Without a political voice, the residents were largely ignored and written off as hopeless by the New York City Health Department.
When Dr. Baker returned to New York after her internship in Boston in 1902 where she joined the New York Health Department as a health inspector. Five years later, she was promoted to director of the Bureau of Child Hygiene. This department was newly formed and tasked to tackle infant mortality. With this appointment, Dr. Sara Baker became the first woman to serve as a health official of a major municipality in America.
At the time, infant mortality was shockingly high. In New York City, one-third of children died before they reached five years old. Baker developed programs on basic hygiene for immigrants living in slum neighborhoods. She founded the Little Mothers Leagues, which trained young girls who were often responsible for their siblings – the basics of infant care.
Baker organized baby health stations that distributed fresh milk. She implemented training and regulations for midwives, which significantly impacted maternal and infant mortality. Once her programs were established, infant and child mortality plummeted.
By the time Baker retired in the mid-1930s with her partner Ida Wyliein, New York had the lowest infant mortality rate in America. Thirty-five states implemented versions of her health programs.
A Powerful Woman in a Man’s World
Baker’s work often involved supervising a staff of male doctors that were often skeptical of women in medicine. She adapted by dressing to minimize her femininity, wearing tailored suits, stiff collars, and men’s ties. She would joke that her colleagues often disparaged women doctors in conversations with her because they didn’t think of her as a woman.
Baker’s theory that if mothers had guidelines to care for infants and children, then most deaths could be prevented proved correct. Historians credit her initiatives for saving more than 90,000 immigrants’ lives that would have otherwise been taken by ignorance or disease.
Dr. Baker’s contributions to public health made her a shining light in the field of social policy. Her preventative approach to medicine promoted widespread public trust in medical professionals and made New York City a healthier place.