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Baker, Josephine

S. Josephine Baker (1873 – 1945) — Public Health Pioneer, Administrator and Advocate for the Poor and Sick in New York City


Portrait of Sara Josephine Baker, MD
S. Josephine Baker, M.D., 1922
Image: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Sara Josephine Baker expanded the scope of public health care as the first director of New York’s Bureau of Child Hygiene from 1908 to 1923. In 1917 she became the first woman to earn a doctorate in public health from the New York University and Bellevue Hospital Medical College (later the New York University School of Medicine).

Sara Josephine Baker was born in 1873 in Poughkeepsie, New York, to Daniel Mosher Baker, a lawyer, and Jenny Harwood Brown, one of the first graduates of Vassar College. When Baker’s father died suddenly when she was sixteen, she gave up a Vassar scholarship to go to medical school to train for a secure career as a physician. Despite the opposition of family members who were skeptical of women physicians, Baker persuaded her mother that she was making the right decision.

Baker joined the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1894 (founded in 1868 by Elizabeth Blackwell and her sister, Emily Blackwell). She took full advantage of the opportunity to work with a network of very successful female physicians, including Mary Putnam Jacobi, negotiating a year’s internship at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston after graduation in 1898. That year she came to understand the connection between poverty and ill health that would occupy her for the rest of her career.

Dr. S. Josephine Baker opened a private practice in New York in 1899, but to help cover costs took extra work as a medical examiner for the New York Life Insurance Company. She also worked part-time as a medical inspector for the city — her first foray into public health and the beginning of her association with city health administration.

In 1907 Dr. Baker was made assistant commissioner of health, working on a number of high-profile health issues including smallpox vaccination. She was also instrumental in identifying “Typhoid Mary” — Mary Mallon, a cook who had worked in several New York households and had unwittingly caused a small typhoid epidemic in the city. The widely publicized case fueled fears about hidden health dangers and paved the way for broader public health programs to improve standards of hygiene.

In 1908, Dr. Baker was appointed director of the city’s new Bureau of Child Hygiene, where she developed programs for midwife training, basic hygiene, and preventive care. She also pioneered city-funded well baby stations, and the Little Mothers Leagues (beginning in 1910), to train girls age 12 and older in basic infant care. The Leagues had important practical benefits for the family economy. Educating siblings to care for younger brothers and sisters allowed mothers to go out to work without their children suffering neglect, a key issue for family health and financial security.

S. Josephine Baker’s innovative programs at the Bureau, the first such agency in the United States, were part of the early twentieth-century focus on social medicine. Dr. Baker promoted health education in the city’s immigrant communities, distributed milk to children, and created a school health program that was copied in thirty-five states across America. By the time Baker retired in 1923, New York City had the lowest infant mortality rate of any major American city.

Dr. Baker shines not only for her contributions to public health and social policy, but also for her work as a woman in government administration, supervising a staff that included many male physicians skeptical of women in medicine. She devised wardrobe strategies to minimize her femininity — man-tailored suits and shirts, stiff collars and ties — joking that her colleagues didn’t think of her as a woman and often disparaged women physicians in conversation with her. Her work made her a leading figure in public health and the New York City Bureau of Child Hygiene became a model for similar programs in other cities, as well as for the United States Children’s Bureau, established in 1912.

Recommended Reading:
Fighting for Life by S. Josephine Baker (Huntington, NY: R.E. Krieger Publishing Co., 1980, first printing 1939.)
Women Life Scientists: Past, Present, and Future edited by Karen Lakes Matyas and Ann E. Haley-Oliphant (Bethesda, MD: American Physiological Society, 1997).

Originally Published: U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health:

How to Cite This Article (APA Format): National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). S. Josephine Baker (1973 – 1945) — Public health pioneer, administrator and advocate for the poor and sick in New York City. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from