|Date(s):||June 1, 1902 to June 1, 1920|
|Location(s):||Manhattan, New York|
|Tag(s):||josephine baker, infant health, New York City, Public Health|
|Course:||“The History of Medicine and Public Health,” Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis|
The Manhattan neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen was truly living up to its name in the summer of 1902. The oppressive heat and ripe stench gripped at Dr. Sara Josephine Baker as she climbed floor after floor of the crowded tenements, knocking on doors in the neighborhood in search of sick babies as part of her job with the New York City Department of Health. Dr. Baker was faced with all measures of poverty and squalor- cockroaches skittering across the floors, dead flies floating in milk bottles, and “dying baby after dying baby.” At the time, as many as 1500 babies died every week during that summer, and it was Dr. Baker’s job to record and report these statistics. According to her memoirs, Dr. Baker recounted that mothers felt helpless against the epidemics of the day: “[The mothers] were just horribly fatalistic about it while it was going on. Babies always died in summer and there was no point in trying to do anything about it.”
Dr. Baker later collected her recommendations for new mothers based on her years of fieldwork and research into her 1920 book, Healthy Babies. This handbook for mothers does not offer cures for diseases, but instead offers suggestions on how to keep a baby well. In the preface of the book, Dr. Baker makes it clear that “methods of keeping babies well are simple and easy,” and emphasizes many times over that any mother with common sense can provide a clean and safe environment for her child. In clear and concise language, Dr. Baker instructs mothers on what temperature to keep the nursery (66 to 68 degrees in the day), and dictates if babies must have toys, they should be washable. Dr. Baker wrote this book based on the assumption that a mother could positively impact her baby’s health rather than leaving it to chance, and also promotes the idea of “wellness” over simply “not being sick.” The existence of such a book reflects the time it was written. Between her sweltering summer in Hell’s Kitchen and the year this book was published, infant health in New York City improved by leaps and bounds, and much of this can be attributed to Dr. Baker herself.
The years of fieldwork amongst the poorest of New York City’s families inspired Dr. Baker as she rose through the ranks of the Department of Health, where she eventually held the position of Commissioner of Health. In 1908, she was appointed director of the newly formed Bureau of Child Hygiene, the first agency of its kind in the United States, and immediately began efforts to coordinate the programs all of the child hygiene agencies in the city. Dr. Baker’s programs exemplified public health at its best, streamlining and connecting existing organizations to work together towards the common goal of preventing child mortality and improving conditions of child hygiene across the board. Under her guidance, every reported new mother was visited by a public health nurse, who instructed the mother on proper care and feeding practices and gave her informational pamphlets. Milk stations, which provided the city’s mothers with quality milk for their babies at low prices or for free, partnered with Dr. Baker’s bureau and developed into child health stations. These stations not only offered nutritious food for children, but offered education on child care, and later provided vaccinations. By the time Dr. Baker retired in 1923, New York City had the lowest infant mortality rate in the country. Dr. Sara Josephine Baker’s impact on infant health in New York City, and public health as a whole, cannot be overstated.