Did you know that Sara Josephine Baker was born today in 1873? She was a physician who made great contributions to public health and child welfare. She realized that one of the ways to keep people from dying from disease was to keep them from getting sick. Some of the programs Baker developed to improve public health include inspecting for infectious diseases, teaching people how to stay healthy, preventing blindness in infants, providing safe sources of milk, and introducing nurses in schools. Her work led to the creation of what would eventually become the Department of Health and Human Services.
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Sara Josephine Baker’s father and brother died of typhoid when she was about 16. She wanted to support her mother and family and decided on a career in medicine.
Sara Josephine Baker helped to track and apprehend the infamous “Typhoid Mary” Mallon not once, by twice.
Sara Josephine Baker tested her Preventative Medicine and child welfare plans in Hell’s Kitchen, one of the worse slums in New York City. Her team found all infants in the district and taught the parents of the infant basic hygiene, the importance of ventilation, nutrition, and clothing. By the end of summer, there were 1,200 fewer infant deaths compared to the previous year.
To help working mothers, Sara Josephine Baker organized the Babies Welfare Association in 1911 to help address the needs and health of infants in New York. By 1923, the association helped to care for 60,000 infants, half of the infants born in New York City. The association also organized “Little Mother Leagues” which taught young girls how to care for infants so their mothers could work. In 1908, before the organization of the association, the infant mortality rate was 144 per 1,000 live births. In 1918, seven years after the start of the association, the rate fell to 88 per 1,000 live births. In 1923, the rate was 66 for every 1,000 live births.
Infant blindness was often caused by gonorrhea bacteria infections contracted during birth. Silver nitrate drops were used to prevent the infection. However, the bottles of silver nitrate were easily contaminated or the concentration of silver nitrate grew to unsafe levels. Sara Josephine Baker designed single-use bottles, made out of beeswax, that helped to alleviate these issues. Rates of infant blindness dropped from 300 per year to just 3 per year.
Sara Josephine Baker also addressed the health needs of older children. She ensured that the schools had medical staff which checked the children’s health. The system worked well enough to almost eradicate infestations of head lice and trachoma.
During World War I, Sara Josephine Baker made the comment that soldiers in the trenches of France were six times safer than a child born in the United States. She also highlighted that many young men were declared unable to serve in the military because of their poor health. This brought attention to the issue of child health and welfare and helped Baker acquire the resources needed to start programs to improve health.
Sara Josephine Baker was invited to give a lecture on child hygiene at the New York University Medical School. She agreed to give the lecture if she would be allowed to enroll in the school. New York University Medical School declined and tried to find another lecturer, but could not find one with credentials equal to Baker’s. She was allowed to enroll and graduated with a doctorate degree in public health.