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Dr. S. Josephine Baker (1873-1945)

Josephine Baker was born into a family that valued education.  Her father was an attorney and her mother was the descendent of one of the founders of Harvard University.  At age 16 her father died of typhoid fever and Josephine decided then to become a physician to help support her struggling family.  It was not common for women to attend medical school, however, her family supported her with the support of $5,000 of the family's dwindling assets.

Baker concentrated on children’s health in medical school and eventually opened a private practice in New York City.  Unfortunately, people did not want to see a woman doctor and she only earned $185 in her first year in practice.  To earn extra money she applied to be a city health inspector using only the name S.J. Baker on her application.  Assuming she was a man the city hired her and she was assigned the task of inspecting the health conditions in the worst city slum: Hell’s Kitchen.

When she started her work Hell’s Kitchen had one of the highest mortality rates in the world: 1,500 infant deaths per week.  She introduced preventative care and taught the simple benefits of good ventilation, regular bathing, suitable clothing, breastfeeding, and sanitation.  In her first summer, infant deaths dropped by 1,200 per week.

Baker pioneered the use of silver nitrate to fight common bacterial infections in children’s eyes at birth.  The silver nitrate in use at the time was often contaminated and the doses poorly regulated.  This often resulted in bringing on blindness in children.  She invented a sterile beeswax capsule to keep the chemical clean in the proper dose.  This method of delivery is still in use today.

Josephine twice helped to identify and catch Typhoid Mary, an infamous restaurant cook who was immune to the disease but as a carrier infected many of her customers. She was the first professional representative appointed to the League of Nations representing the United States in the area of public health.