Josephine Baker Was a Pioneer of Preventative Health
by Leila Fletcher, age 11
Josephine Baker was the first physician to use preventive medicine, and revolutionized the field of midwifery. Her 1939 autobiography, “Fighting for Life,” was recently reissued. Dr. Abigail Zuger, a contribution to the New York Times said Bakers insights are “intensely relevant” today.
Baker was born in 1873 in Poughkeepsie, New York to a middle-class Victorian family. When she was 16, her father died of Typhoid fever, which threw her life off-couse. Gone were Baker’s expectations of attending Vassar College and raising a family. Instead, she had to find a way to support herself. Baker skipped college and enrolled in medical school.
After graduating from the New York Infirmary’s Women’s Medical College, she started a practice on the Upper West side, which left her broke. Desperate, she took a part-time city service job at the Department of Health.
Baker was one of the few women in her field. In her autobiography she recalls that in medical school, her male colleagues were not really doing their jobs. Baker noted that the Department of Health headquarters “reeked of negligence and stale tobacco smoke and slacking.”
Her first job was inspector of the field, which later changed to infant mortality administrator. At this time diarrhea caused the death of 1,500 infants weekly in the summer.
“It’s six times safer to be a soldier in the trenches of France than to be born in the United States,” Baker famously said.
Preventive medicine was still a new idea then, but she started an experiment in a neighborhood she referred to as “a complicated, filthy, sunless and stifling nest of tenements.”
In the summer, midwives and nurses would visit all the new mothers in a poor part of town, where the buildings were unsanitary, not well maintained and rife with disease. They taught mothers ways to keep their babies healthy. The result was more than a thousand fewer infant deaths than usual, while infant mortality rates in surrounding areas stayed the same.
Baker also said, “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,” said Baker.
Her organization began licensing midwives and stopping ones who were not qualified. She set up neighborhood “baby health stations” where midwives distributed milk. She also started the “Little Mothers League,” so older siblings could learn basic nutrition and hygiene principles to help their mothers take care of the babies.
But her success was not a joy to everyone. Many medical doctors thought all the “nannying” was ruining their business, and they even petitioned the mayor to shut down her organization. Nonetheless, by the time she resigned from her last job as a speaker and consultant, all the states health departments followed her insights on child health.
She also had conflicts with Typhoid Mary, the first recorded person to have Typhoid fever but not be ill. She was a cook, who infected people with her food. Baker helped arrest her, and kept her away from other people, to ensure their safety.
Doctors still use Josephine Baker’s ideas today. She was an influential woman in the medical field and remained fascinated with health until she died in 1945.
[Source: The New York Times]