In 1908 the infant mortality rate in New York City was 144 per 1000 live births, ranking it above today’s Afghanistan (187.5) but below Mali (106.49) and Somalia (101.91); by 1918, it had dropped to 88 per 1000, a nearly 50% decrease. Credit for all of those surviving children is largely owed to the efforts of Dr. S. Josephine Baker, a physician and public health worker.
At the time, the concept of combating disease by eliminating risk factors was still a novel one – the London cholera epidemic that led to the establishment of epidemiology was a mere few decades earlier, and its importance was still largely unacknowledged, while Ignaz Semmelweis‘s career had been destroyed by his insistence on washing hands between patients. Baker, concerned with high infant and child morbidity and mortality, became one of public health’s great pioneers. Many of what are now considered basic components of children’s healthcare and preventative medicine were Baker’s innovations. Pushing for doctors and nurses to be on school staff and to inspect children for lice and trachoma; educating parents in how to feed, clean, and clothe children; engineering safe containers for infant eye drops meant to combat blindness from maternal gonorrhea infections; creating a licensing system for midwives; developing a safe synthetic breast milk formula; and starring in her own Hark! a Vagrant strip. She had a flair for the dramatic, gaining recognition for her cause by pointing out that babies in the US died at a rate three times that of World War I soldiers.
Among Baker’s other numerous accomplishments: becoming the first female professional representative to the League of Nations; founding the Federal Children’s Bureau and Public Health Services (later known as the Department of Health and Human Services); catching “Typhoid” Mary Mallon twice; and writing five books, including her autobiography. In her spare time, she lived with an out lesbian screenwriter whose most famous work became a film with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn; later in life they moved in with a third woman, possibly forming a lesbian poly triad.