11-15-1873

Dr. S. Josephine Baker

DR. S. JOSEPHINE BAKER, pioneering public health physician, born (d: 1945); Jo, as she preferred, was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1873 to a middle class Unitarian or Quaker family. When she was sixteen, her father and brother died from typhoid, which left her family with no means of support.

Early in her career, she had helped to twice catch Mary Mallon, also known as Typhoid Mary. Mary Mallon was the first known healthy carrier of typhoid who infected countless people through her job as a cook. Mallon was not the only repeat offender in being a typhus-contagious cook, but she was the only one put in isolation for the rest of her life. It may have been relevant that the other offenders were male, or that they were not of Irish heritage.

Josephine Baker was becoming famous, so much so that New York University Medical School asked her to lecture there on children’s health, or ‘child hygiene’, as it was known at the time. Baker said she would if she could also enroll in the School. The School had to give in because there was no one else who could give the lectures. So in 1917 Baker graduated with a doctorate in public health. After the United States entered WWI, Baker became even better known. Most of this publicity was generated from her comment to a NY Times reporter. She told him that it was safer to be on the front lines than to be born in the United States because the soldiers died at a rate of 4%, whereas babies died at a rate of 12%. She was able to start a lunch program for school children due to the publicity this comment brought. Over the years of her career, she made intelligent use of the press to advance the goals she had for public health. She made use of the publicity around the high rate of young men being declared 4F (not eligible for draft due to poor health) as a motivating factor for support in her work on improving the health of children.

Josephine Baker was now known across the world. She was offered a job in London as health director of public schools, a job in France taking care of war refugees, and a job in the United States as Assistant Surgeon General. Baker became the first woman to hold a federal government position when she accepted the position as Assistant Surgeon General of the United States. In 1923 she retired, but she didn’t stop working.

Josephine Baker became the first woman to be a professional representative to the League of Nations when she represented the United States in the Health Committee. Many government positions, departments, and committees were created because of her work including the Federal Children’s Bureau and Public Health Services (now the Department of Health and Human Services) and child hygiene departments in every state. She was also active in many groups and societies including over twenty-five medical societies and the New York State Department of Health. She also became the President of the American Medical Women’s Association and wrote 250 articles (both professional and for the popular press), 4 books, and her autobiography before her death in 1945.

Josephine Baker wrote very little about her personal life, however her partner for much of the later part of her life was Ida Alexa Wylie, a novelist and essayist from England, and self-identified as a ‘woman-oriented woman’. I.A.R. Wylie is best know for the novel “The Daughter of Brahma”, and “Life with George”, an autobiography. When Baker retired in 1923, she started to run their household while writing her autobiography. In 1935, Baker and Wylie decided to move to Princeton, NJ, together with their friend Louise Pearce, M.D.. Pearce was a biological researcher at the Rockefeller Institute, working on animal models for trypanosoma (African Sleeping sickness) and syphylis, and the testing of treatments. Pearce later became the President of the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia. While Baker and Pearce left little documentation of their personal lives, Wylie was open about her orientation. But she did not identify either Baker or Pearce in her writings. Wylie’s papers, including some personal letters, were donated to the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia (now the Medical College of Philadelphia), where they are now available in the college’s archives.