When most of us hear the name "Josephine Baker" we think of the exotic cabaret dancer who set Paris on fire decades ago. But I'd like to introduce you to S. Josephine Baker, who changed the face of public health medicine. Born on November 15th, 1873, to a wealthy Quaker family (3: Belief In The Unbelievable), as a young teenager she had planned to accept a scholarship to attend Vassar. But when she was 16, both her brother and her father died of typhoid (1: No Paternal Safety Net), and she decided to pursue a career in medicine (2: An Early Sense of Direction).
Her family did not support her decision to become a physician (17: Dreaming Your Own Dream), but in spite of their skepticism about female doctors, she enrolled in the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1894. This school had been founded by America's first female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell, and Baker was able to meet other inspiring women doctors. After her graduation in 1898, she interned at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston. That is where she first understood the connection between poverty and poor health, which became her life-long passion (7: Magnificent Obsession).
In 1899, she opened a private practice in New York City, and also worked as a medical examiner for the New York Life Insurance Company. She also worked part-time as a medical inspector for New York City, and by 1907, was made assistant commissioner of health. Dealing with small pox vaccination was part of her responsibility during this time, and she had a major role in identifying "Typhoid Mary," a cook who had unknowingly spread typhoid throughout the city.
In 1908, Baker was appointed director of the new Bureau of Child Hygiene, where she developed important public health programs. She started the Little Mothers League, which was a program that helped siblings care for younger brothers and sisters so that mothers could go to work and help support their families. In 1917, she told an interviewer that babies born in The United States faced a higher mortality rate (12%) than American soldiers fighting in French trenches in World War I (2%). During that time 1,500 babies routinely died of diarrhea every week during the summer. That same year she became the first woman to earn a doctorate in public health from NYU (13: More Than Meets The Eye).
Baker met with a great deal of resistance, and at one point several dozen Brooklyn doctors petitioned the mayor to shut down her agency. But she was widely credited with saving the lives of 90,000 inner-city children, and soon other cities began to follow her suggestions. By the time she retired from city government (in 1923), all 48 states had a bureau of child health patterned after Baker's (8: Turning No Into Yes).
Baker was the driving force behind helping educate inner-city immigrants, distributing formula to infants and milk to children, preventing gonorrhea-created infant blindness, licensing midwives, and placing nurses in schools. Because so many male doctors were hostile (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest) to both Baker and her work (she was in charge of supervising a staff that included many dismissive male doctors), she eventually went out of her way to wear clothes that minimized her femininity.
Baker died in 1945, and if you'd like to learn more about her contributions to the world of public health, Fighting for Life (her autobiography, originally published in 1939) has just been reissued by New York Review Books.
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