Sara Josephine Baker

It is quite likely that you have heard of Typhoid Mary (Mary Mallon), but have you heard of the public health official who twice tracked her down and was instrumental in preventing her from working as a cook, thus limiting outbreaks of typhoid in New York?

Meet Sara Josephine Baker! Initially self educated in sciences in her own home, as a teenager she set her mind to training as a doctor, after both her father and brother died of typhoid. She trained as a doctor and was drawn to work in children’s health, after initially failing the course on ‘the normal child’.

She was employed in an area of gross deprivation – known as Hell’s Kitchen – and was one of the earliest proponents of preventative medicine. Training others to work alongside her, she and her team educated mothers on hygiene, nutrition, safe sleeping and other measures to keep babies and small children healthy; healthy children do not die – far better to keep them healthy than try to cure a sick child.

She had a huge impact on reducing infant blindness caused by gonorrhoea picked up in the birth canal; in one year, numbers reduced from 300 to 3. Her impact in Hell’s Kitchen made a splash, and a prestigious medical school invited her to lecture on child health – she agreed, on condition that she be allowed to study at the all male college, gaining her PhD in Public Health.

Policies that she introduced almost eradicated many of the diseases and other health issues (like lice) that are endemic in the poorest communities and New York, the US and the world owe her a great debt for her pioneering work that transformed the lives of the poorest of the poor.

Working in a mainly male profession, she wore suits and was nicknamed ‘Dr. Joe’; she would laughingly say that sometimes her male colleagues ‘even forget I am a woman’. She never did, and for the latter part of her life openly lived with another woman, Ida Wylie, an Australian writer and screenwriter, who was known, in that quaint old-fashioned phrase, as a “woman-oriented woman”.

As well as her work in public health, Sara Baker was an official US representative at the League of Nations (forerunner to the UN) whilst working for the US government, was active in multiple professional bodies and became President of the American Medical Women’s Association. What a scientist, what a woman, what a lesbian!


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