Doctor Sara Josephine Baker: Fighting for Life
In 1890, two men from the same household died from typhoid fever, only a few months apart. Sadly, this was not uncommon. What makes their deaths so special is that their loss of life inspired a young girl to change her goal of studying liberal arts at Vassar College, to going to medical school and becoming a doctor. In her mind she needed to do this as quickly as possible in order to financially take care of her remaining family, and to find a way to stop people from dying from useless diseases like the one that killed her father and brother. She was only 16 when she made this decision.
Orlando Baker was one of Poughkeepsie’s most prominent and respected lawyers. He had married Jenny Brown, one of the first students to enter Vassar College, and they lived at 31 South Clinton Street. Together they had three children, Mary, Sara Josephine (who everyone called Joe), and Robert. As Orlando’s practice was successful, life seemed to be going well for the family. The family was wealthy enough to have servants, and the children were all going to school. However, in March of 1890 the youngest child Robert, who had been a cadet at the Riverview Academy, suddenly fell ill and died; he was only 13 years old. Less than a few months later in May, Orlando also became ill, and died the same painful death as his son. Years later, Josephine wrote about how typhoid had taken both of them in her book “Fighting for Life” saying, “In those days typhoid was the scourge of Poughkeepsie and no wonder, since the town water supply was drawn from the Hudson just below the outlet of the sewer from the large Asylum for the Insane above the town.”
It was at that point in her life that Josephine, who was preparing to go to Vassar, decided that she wanted a career in medicine instead. She had to find a profession that would pay her enough money to take care of her mother and sister. She took $5,000 from her father’s estate and left Poughkeepsie to study medicine in the New York Infirmary Medical College (which allowed women to study medicine) and graduated second in her class in 1898. After a year-long internship she was able to open her own practice in New York City, but money was tight so she took up part time work in the Department of Health as an inspector. She dressed in men’s clothes at work, which confused some of her colleagues. She wrote that one of them had said to her, “Good Lord, I’d entirely forgotten that you were a woman!”
During her years as an inspector, she helped take down the infamous Irish Cook named Mary Mallon, known to the public as “Typhoid Mary.” Josephine had worked alongside other doctors to locate Mary in a Park Avenue home, but she refused to cooperate. Since the young Dr. Baker was a woman; it was her task to pin down Mary inside an ambulance. She wrote, “and I literally sat on her all the way to the hospital; it was like being in a cage with an angry lion.” In 1908, Dr. Baker was appointed director of the city’s new Bureau of Child Hygiene. She developed programs for midwife training, basic hygiene, and preventive care. She then created the Little Mothers Leagues, which were designed to train girls age 12 and older in basic infant care.
From 1916 to 1930 she lectured on child hygiene at the New York University-Bellevue Hospital Medical School. She had recalled in her biography that countless young men and women would come to her and ask whether or not they should practice medicine. While she officially retired from medical practice in 1923, she still remained active on various medical committees, including serving in the League of Nations. In her later years, she lived with her life-partner Ida Alexa Ross Wylie, a screenwriter, in New Jersey until her death on February 22, 1945. She is buried alongside her family members here at the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery.
Baker, S. Josephine. “Fighting For Light” – 1939
Poughkeepsie Journal – 8 Mar 1890, 31 May 1890, 23 Feb 1945,
“Dr. Joe: Pioneer of Public Health Initiatives for Immigrant Mothers and Children” https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.96.4.618
Photo01 – Photo of Dr. Josephine Baker in her early years of practice.
Photo02 – A Vail Brother Studios photo of little Josephine Baker with her brother Robert and sister Mary – LH Collections
Photo03 – Photos of Orlando and Jenny Baker, Dr. Josephine Baker’s parents.