Professional Life

Sara Josephine Baker 2

Unveiling of bust of Baker at Woman's Medical College of Philadelphia, Founders' Day event attended by Jane Wasey, sculptor; Dr. Leona Baumgartner, I.A.R. Wylie (who presented the bust to the College), Dean Marion Fay, Dr. Louise Pearce, 1948

(Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania: Photograph Collection)


When Baker graduated in 1898, women were prohibited from practicing in general hospitals, so she spent a year interning at the woman-run New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston. After her internship ended, Baker returned to New York City, determined to open a private practice. Meager earnings forced her to take a part-time job as a medical inspector for the city. There, after encountering the dire conditions that killed 1500 babies each week, she resolved to find a way to end unnecessary suffering from preventable diseases.[5] Inspired by a course she had taken in medical school on child hygiene, Baker was struck with a startling idea: “The way to keep people from dying of disease,” she realized, “was to keep them from falling ill” in the first place.[6]

Bureau of Child Hygiene

Although the notion of preventive care was virtually unheard of, Baker persevered. In 1908 she was appointed head of a new Bureau of Child Hygiene, where she pioneered an experiment that succeeded in drastically reducing the infant mortality rate in some of the worst slum neighborhoods in New York. By appointing nurses to visit the mothers of newborns and provide simple hygiene instruction (“nothing revolutionary,” Baker said, “just insistence on breast-feeding, efficient ventilation, frequent bathing, the right kind of thin summer clothes, out of door airing”), Baker demonstrated the power of health education to effect real change, which led her to devote the rest of her life to public health.[7] She would go on to develop a variety of programs from the provision of safe milk for babies to a licensing program for midwives. These measures helped to reduce the infant mortality rate by over fifty percent from 1907 to 1923, the date of Baker’s retirement.[8]

Baker became briefly famous for apprehending the notorious “Typhoid Mary,” an Irish cook named Mary Mallon who, desperate to stay employed, eluded authorities repeatedly and infected multiple middle class households.[9] When Baker was sent to collect medical specimens from Mallon at the house where she worked, the cook attempted to stab Baker with a fork then disappeared. After five hours of searching, Baker and a team of police officers discovered her hiding in a closet. According to Baker, Mallon “came out fighting and swearing, both of which she could do with appalling efficiency and vigor.”[10] Once they got her in the ambulance Baker “literally sat on her all the way to the hospital.”[11]

Teaching, Publications, Organizations

As the first woman to earn a doctorate of Public Health, Baker also taught courses on child hygiene and published over 250 articles and five books.[12] Baker founded the American Child Hygiene Association and served on a number of other organizations, including the Health Committee of the League of Nations and the American Medical Women's Association.[13]

By insisting on the importance of public health education to address social and environmental conditions, Baker brought medical training together with a Progressive spirit of social reform. Yet like many of her contemporaries, Baker’s view of immigrant communities was shaped by racism and classism, and her support of birth control was influenced by eugenic as well as feminist ideals.

Building on the female tradition of “social housekeeping,” Baker helped to make the child a key symbol of reform, one that enabled professional women to lay claim to the public sphere.[14] Being a woman was sometimes an asset to her position, but it could also be a liability, one she mitigated by dressing in “man-tailored suits and shirtwaists” and using only her initials.[15]

[5] Ibid, 61.

[6] Ibid, 83.

[7] Ibid, 86.

[8] Manon S. Parry, “Sara Josephine Baker (1873–1945),” American Journal of Public Health 96, no. 4 (April 2006): 619; Regina Morantz-Sanchez, “Baker, Sara Josephine,” American National Biography Online (February 2000),

[9] Priscilla Wald, “Cultures and Carriers: ‘Typhoid Mary’ and the Science of Social Control,” Social Text no. 52/53 (October 1, 1997): 181–214.

[10] Baker, Fighting for Life, 75.

[11] Ibid, 75.

[12] Baker’s list of monographs includes Sara Josephine Baker, Healthy Children: A Volume Devoted to the Health of the Growing Child (Federal Publishing Company, 1920); Sara Josephine Baker, The Growing Child (Little, Brown, 1920); Sara Josephine Baker, Healthy Babies: A Volume Devoted to the Health of the Expectant Mother and the Care and Welfare of the Child (Federal Publishing Company, 1923); Sara Josephine Baker, Healthy Mothers: A Volume Devoted to the Health of the Expectant Mother and the Care and Welfare of the Child (Little, Brown, 1923); and Sara Josephine Baker, Child Hygiene (Harper & Bros., 1925).

[13] Morantz-Sanchez, “Baker, Sara Josephine.”

[14] Elizabeth Fee and Barbara Greene, “Science and Social Reform: Women in Public Health,” Journal of Public Health Policy 10, no. 2 (July 1, 1989): 162; 166.

[15] Baker, Fighting for Life, 64.