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The Doctor Who Saved 90,000 Children

Before Sara Josephine Baker took charge, a third of children died before their 5th birthdays.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the pioneering physician Sara Josephine Baker revolutionized public health care for children in New York City. When Baker started her public health work, the impoverished slums of Hell's Kitchen on the city's Lower East Side were among the most densely populated places on Earth, and epidemics killed an estimated 4,500 people each week in the overcrowded immigrant tenements, including 1,500 babies. With a third of children born there dying before their fifth birthday, Baker famously remarked that "It is six times safer to be a soldier in the trenches than a baby in the United States." Thanks to her initiatives, the death rate plummeted, and Baker became famous as doctor who had saved 90,000 children in New York City and countless others as her reforms were replicated across the United States and in other countries.

Baker was born in 1873 and grew up in a Quaker family in Poughkeepsie, New York. She studied medicine at the Women’s Medical College in Manhattan, the medical school run by Emily Blackwell, the sister of Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first female doctor. In 1908, with diseases such as measles, dysentery, typhoid, and diphtheria running rampant in the city's Lower East Side, Baker was put in charge of the Health Department’s newly formed Bureau of Child Hygiene, the first of its kind in the country. In this role, Baker approached public health in an innovative new way: rather than focusing on tracking down sick children, whose chances for survival were often slim in the age before antibiotics, she decided the new bureau would focus on education and prevention, including through smallpox vaccination campaigns and a variety of nutrition and hygiene educational programs.

Among her most successful initiatives, she sent nurses to visit all new mothers to teach them about proper infant care, including encouraging breastfeeding, regular bathing, and fresh air. She also set up a network of milk stations to provide clean, pasteurized milk to mothers who couldn't breastfeed, a much healthier alternative to the dirty water, contaminated milk, or beer otherwise fed to infants. Moreover, Baker convinced city officials to require that midwives have training and licenses, since many mothers and infants died each year during deliveries by untrained midwives.

Baker also tackled the persistent problem of infant blindness, which was caused by gonorrhea bacteria during birth. It was known at the time that administrating drops of silver nitrate to newborns' eyes could prevent blindness but the silver nitrate bottles often became contaminated or the concentration was too high and caused more damage. To address these problems, Baker designed new containers out of sterile beeswax that contained precise, single doses of silver nitrate. Within two years, infant blindness dropped from 300 babies per year to 3 per year.

These initiatives and others had an astounding impact on public health: within three years of launching her programs, the infant death rate in New York City dropped by 40% and, by the time she retired in 1923, the city had the lowest infant mortality rate of any large American city. Baker's impact also extended far beyond New York City. In 1912, she helped to support the launch of the Federal Children’s Bureau, now an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Her programs were also replicated in many other cities and states, including a school health program that was copied in 35 states, and every state had established a bureau of children's health like New York's by the time of Baker's retirement.

As Baker became well-known both in the U.S. and overseas as a champion of public health, she was asked to teach a course on children's health at the New York University and Bellevue Hospital Medical College (now the New York University School of Medicine).  She agreed with only one condition — the school, which at the time refused to admit female students, had to allow Baker and other women to enter the program as well. She graduated with a doctorate in public health in 1917 and continued to teach at the medical school for 15 years. Baker also became the first woman to serve on the Health Committee of the League of Nations, which she served on from 1922 to 1924.

Baker's writing helped to further spread her message of public health and the importance of caring for society's youngest members. She published more than 250 articles in the professional and popular press and wrote five books about maternal, infant, and child health. Her popular autobiography, Fighting For Life, described not only her work in New York City's Lower East Side, but also her activism for the Women's Suffrage Movement, her tour of Russia in the 1930s, and her adventures tracking down the infamous "Typhoid Mary." Baker died in 1945 at the age of 71 but her incredible legacy lives on today in public health programs across the world — and the millions of lives that they have saved.

Books About Groundbreaking Women in Medicine

Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell

Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell

Written by: Tanya Lee Stone
Illustrated by: Marjorie Priceman
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Elizabeth Blackwell didn’t want to be a wife, or a teacher, or a seamstress: she wanted to be a doctor! But in the 1830s, that just wasn't something women did. Elizabeth wasn't swayed, though: when people told her she wasn’t smart enough, or strong enough, she knew better. She fought her way past detractors and skeptics to attend medical school, and not only was she the first woman to graduate from a medical degree in the US, she became the first woman to join the UK Medical Register. Her brilliant career would become an inspiration for generations of women after her. With its colorful art and inspiring tone, this is sure to be a favorite for would-be doctors everywhere.

Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children
New!

Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children
New!

Written by: Monica Kulling
Illustrated by: Julianna Swaney
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

After Sara Josephine Baker lost her brother and father to typhoid fever, she knew she wanted to be a doctor. But when she graduated in 1898, few people wanted to see a woman doctor, so Dr. Jo took a job in public health working in Hell's Kitchen, one of New York's poorest neighborhoods. She realized that, by improving the health of children, she could improve the health of a whole community. Dr. Jo assigned visiting nurses to new mothers, designed safe infant clothing, set up milk stations, and created training and licensing for midwives — and her work saved over 90,000 children. This picture book biography of a groundbreaking woman in medicine highlights how simple innovations can have an enormous impact.

The Doctor With An Eye For Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath

The Doctor With An Eye For Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath

Written by: Julia Finley Mosca
Illustrated by: Daniel Rieley
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

When Patricia Bath was coming of age, the intelligent young woman was determined to become a doctor, but she had many obstacles in her way: sexism, racism, and poverty all seemed to be working against her. Despite it all, she broke new ground for both women and African Americans in her chosen field of ophthalmology. In 1981, Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe, a quick and nearly painless way to treat cataracts — one which has now been used on millions of patients around the world! This inspiring story, which includes a note from Bath herself, highlights the power of fighting for a dream.

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale

Written by: Demi
Illustrated by: Demi
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

At a time when hospitals were dangerous, dirty, and overworked — places for the poor and uneducated, not people like her own wealthy family — Florence Nightingale revolutionized the world of medicine. Her insistence on proper hygiene, healthy food, and organized hospitals resulted in dramatic improvements, and her careful documentation and analysis of statistics managed to convince others, too, that her model was worth following. Author/illustrator Demi paints an evocative portrait of Nightingale's faith, intelligence, and determination in this tribute to the Lady with the Lamp.

Mary Walker Wears The Pants: The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero

Mary Walker Wears The Pants: The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero

Written by: Cheryl Harness
Illustrated by: Carlo Molinari
Recommended Age: 6 - 9

When Mary Walker dared to become one of the first women doctors, that was bold enough to astonish most people in the 1800s — so imagine how they felt when she walked down the street wearing not a skirt, but pants! When the Civil War broke out, Walker was determined to serve the Union, not as a nurse, but as the doctor she was already qualified to be... and her courage and dedication made her the only woman ever to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. This story of the convention-smashing suffragist, doctor, and war hero celebrates the power of those who refuse to follow the crowd.

Who Was Clara Barton?

Who Was Clara Barton?

Written by: Stephanie Spinner
Illustrated by: David Groff
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

As a child, quiet, shy Clara Barton didn't seem like the sort of person who could change the world. But her devoted brother saw something in her: a gift for healing. In a time when few women worked outside the home at anything, she took a job as a patent clerk and became the first woman to hold a government job. Then, during the Civil War, she was appointed "lady in charge" of the hospitals at the front line, where she earned a reputation as the "Angel of the Battlefield." And after the war, she founded the American Red Cross, one of the most recognized organizations in the world. This book from the accessible Who Was...? biography series is an excellent introduction to this trailblazing woman's life and work.

Bold Women of Medicine

21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs

Bold Women of Medicine

21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs

Written by: Susan M. Latta
Recommended Age: 12 and up

From 19th century battlefield nurses Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale, to modern medical miracle workers like Dr. Catherine Hamlin and Dr. Bonnie Simpson Mason, women have long played a key role in medicine — but their contributions have often been downplayed or forgotten. In this fascinating new title from the Women of Action series, readers get to meet some of the daring and trailblazing women of the past two hundred years of medicine. These women defied prejudices and expectations, created incredible new procedures, and devoted their lives to healing people around the world.

A Warrior of the People

How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America's First Indian Doctor

A Warrior of the People

How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America's First Indian Doctor

Written by: Joe Starita
Recommended Age: Adults

Susan La Flesche Picotte earned her medical degree in 1889 — 31 years before women could vote and 35 years before Native Americans could become citizens. The first Native American doctor in US history became the doctor for her tribe, the Omaha: 1,244 patients, many of them desperately poor and seriously ill, spread across over 1,350 square miles. This indomitable woman, who spoke their language and understood their traditions, was often their last hope against disease and injury. Despite the many barriers she had to break, La Flesche would be a powerful agent for change for both women and Native Americans. Author Joe Starita will donate all royalties from this inspiring book to a college scholarship fund he has established for Native American high school graduates.

Fighting For Life

Fighting For Life

Written by: S. Josephine Baker
Recommended Age: Adults

When Dr. Sara Josephine Baker started working in New York's Lower East Side, health inspectors called it "the suicide ward." Epidemics raged every year, killing thousands, and a third of the children there died before their fifth birthday. Within a few years of Baker establishing her public health initiatives, the child death rate had plummeted. In her own voice, Baker talks about her life, her work, and how she transformed New York from a city of illness and death to one of the healthiest on earth. She also talks about her fight to have the same practices put in place across the country and around the world, so that people everywhere could fight for the life and health of their children. Her wry and astute observations, in combination with a frank and compassionate look at the job of public health, still have important lessons to teach us today.

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