“Until then, the Health Department had sought to track down sick children and refer them to physicians, a mostly futile endeavor in the days before antibiotics and modern medicine. Baker decided that the new bureau’s mission would instead be prevention. The city had an established and efficient system of birth registration. As soon as a child was born, her name and address were reported to the Health Department. Baker reasoned that if every new mother were properly taught how to feed and care for a baby and recognize the signs of illness, the mother would have a much better chance of keeping the child alive.

“In her first year at the Bureau of Child Hygiene, Baker sent nurses to the most deadly ward on the Lower East Side. They were to visit every new mother within a day of delivery, encouraging exclusive breast-feeding, fresh air, and regular bathing, and discouraging hazardous practices such as feeding the baby beer or allowing him to play in the gutter. This advice was entirely conventional, but the results were extraordinary: that summer, 1,200 fewer children died in that district compared to the previous year; elsewhere in the city the death rate remained high.”

How Sara Josephine Baker revolutionized medical care through her work in the New York City Health Department in the early 20th Century. She chronicled her experiences in a memoir, Fighting for Life. Read more from the New York Review of Books.


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