Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America’s Children

My second selection for Women’s History Month profiles Sara Josephine Baker, whose personal tragedy compelled her to serve others. As a child, she lost her beloved brother and father to typhoid, the source of which was traced back to a hospital’s dumping of sewage into the Hudson River, which provided drinking water for her hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York. She would graduate in 1898 from a medical college begun by two sisters and open her own practice with a female colleague – all so extraordinary at the time – but a lack of patients would force the practice to close, and Baker would go on to become a health inspector for New York City. It was in this capacity that she would save the lives of 90,000 children – not only in NYC, but across the country – as her revolutionary methods for improving the quality of life in poverty-stricken areas caught on. In Hell’s Kitchen, the neighborhood to which she was assigned, she observed so much heartbreak, including infant deaths from needless mistakes, ignorance, or lack of resources. She embarked on an aggressive, expansive effort to help the impoverished by requiring midwives to become certified, organizing milk stations in storefronts to provide safe milk for children, and by developing a sterile eye-drop container from beeswax. She also designed clothing (picked up and mass-produced by a manufacturer) better suited for babies than the heavy, tight swaddling that caused some of them to die from heatstroke in the suffocating tenement buildings. Monica Kulling’s narrative is honest but gentle, and Julianna Swaney’s illustrations are kid-friendly, colored with a warm palette and drawn to tug at the heart with sweet, concerned faces of tenement families as Baker tends to little ones. Incorporate this in a unit about pioneers responsible for major advances in medicine – Pasteur, Nightingale, Salk, etc. – or a unit about community helpers. And be sure to point it out to budding physicians as an example of what a powerful combination knowledge and compassion can be.

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