November 15th – Special Edition

November 15th

11-15-1873 – 02-22-1945   Sara Josephine Baker – Born in Poughkeepsie, New York to a wealthy Quaker family. She attended the New York Infirmary Medical College and graduated second in her class in 1898. As an American physician, she is known for her contributions to public health, especially those of children living in poverty in New York City. Known as “Dr. Joe,” she wore masculine-tailored suits and joked that colleagues forgot that she was a woman. In 1917, she noted that babies born in the United States faced a higher mortality rate than soldiers fighting in WWI. She also (twice) tracked down Mary Mallon, known as Typhoid Mary. Baker aided in the prevention of infant blindness caused by gonorrhea bacteria transmitted during birth. Within 2 years, her efforts decreased blindness from 300 babies per year to 3 per year. Baker also campaigned to educate and license midwives. She also worked to make sure that each school had its own doctor and nurse. This system worked so well, that head lice and the eye infection trachoma, diseases once rampant in schools, became almost non-existent. Because of her efforts, she became famous and was asked by the New York University Medical School to lecture on children’s health. Baker said she would if she could also enroll in the school. She was initially turned down, but eventually allowed to enroll because the school couldn’t find a male lecturer to match her knowledge. So, in 1917, she graduated with a doctorate in public health. Quote from her autobiography: “The way to keep people from dying from disease, it struck me suddenly, was to keep them from falling ill. Healthy people don’t die. It sounds like a completely witless remark, but at that time it was a startling idea. Preventative medicine had hardly been born yet and had no promotion in public health work.”  Baker lived most of the later part of her life with Ida Alexa Ross Wylie (b. March 16,1885), a novelist and scriptwriter from Australia who identified as a “woman-oriented woman.” Little is known about Baker’s personal life, as she destroyed all her personal papers. Neither Baker nor Wylie ever declared themselves openly as lesbians, but according to Dr. Bert Hansen’s articles, Public Careers and Private Sexuality: Some Gay and Lesbian Lives in the History of Medicine and Public Health, the two women were life-partners. Baker died from cancer on February 22, 1945, in New York City.

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