New York’s Lower East Side was said to be the most densely populated square mile on earth in the 1890s. Health inspectors called the neighborhood “the suicide ward.” Diarrhea epidemics raged each summer, killing thousands of children. Sweatshop babies with smallpox and typhus dozed in garment heaps destined for fashionable shops. Desperate mothers paced the streets to soothe their feverish children and white mourning cloths hung from every building. A third of the children living there died before their fifth birthday.
By 1911, the child death rate had fallen sharply and The New York Times hailed the city as the healthiest on earth. In this witty and highly personal autobiography, public health crusader Dr. S. Josephine Baker explains how this transformation was achieved. By the time she retired in 1923, Baker was famous worldwide for saving the lives of 90,000 children. The programs she developed, many still in use today, have saved the lives of millions more. She fought for women’s suffrage, toured Russia in the 1930s, and captured “Typhoid” Mary Mallon, twice. She was also an astute observer of her times, and Fighting for Life is one of the most honest, compassionate memoirs of American medicine ever written.
About the Author
Sara Josephine Baker (1873–1945) was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, and attended the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary. As the first director of New York’s Bureau of Child Hygiene from 1908 to 1923, Baker’s work with poor mothers and children in the immigrant communities of New York City dramatically reduced maternal and child mortality and became a model for cities across the country. On two occasions she helped to track down Mary Mallon, the cook who came to be known as Typhoid Mary. Baker wrote fifty journal articles and more than two hundred pieces for the popular press about preventive medicine, as well as six books: Healthy Babies, Healthy Mothers, Healthy Children (all 1920), The Growing Child (1923), Child Hygiene (1925), and her autobiography, Fighting for Life (1939). In the 1930s Baker, along with her partner of many years, the novelist Ida Wylie, and their friend Dr. Louise Pearce, moved to a two-hundred-year-old farm in New Jersey, where she lived until her death.
Helen Epstein is a writer specializing in public health and an adjunct professor at Bard College. She has advised numerous organizations, including the United States Agency for International Development, the World Bank, Human Rights Watch, and UNICEF. She is the author of The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa and has contributed articles to many publications, including The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Magazine.
“The fact that [Baker] achieved so much professionally as a woman in the medical field is made more impressive by the fact that in 1900, only 6% of physicians were women. . . . The public health crusader was also a suffragette and a feminist who was with her female life partner, the writer Ida Wylie, from 1920 until her death in 1945. . . . At a time when New York City and the rest of the world are dealing with another public health crisis, Dr. Baker’s commitment to serving the most vulnerable among us is an important reminder.” —Sarah Prager, them.
“Baker was the first director of a children’s public health agency, and the first woman to get a doctorate in public health. She tangled repeatedly with Typhoid Mary. More important, her ideas saved thousands of lives and permanently changed the focus and mission of public health. Her just-reissued 1939 autobiography proves to be one of those magical books that reaches effortlessly through time, as engaging and as thought-provoking as if it were written now.” —The New York Times
“Dr. Baker shines not only for her contributions to public health and social policy, but also for her work as a woman in government administration, supervising a staff that included many male physicians. Her work made her a leading figure in public health and the New York City Bureau of Child Hygiene became a model for similar programs in other cities, as well as for the United States Children’s Bureau.” —U.S. National Library of Medicine
“Rather than spending her time swanning about town, Josephine Baker became a pioneer, dedicating her life to the field of preventive health care for children.” —Anthony Bourdain