New York’s lower east side was said to be the most densely populated square mile on the face of the earth in the 1890s. City health inspectors called the neighborhood “the suicide ward” and referred to one particular tenement—in an official Health Department report, no less—as an “out and out hog pen.” Diarrhea epidemics raged each summer, killing thousands of city children. Sweatshop babies with smallpox and typhus dozed in garment heaps destined for fashionable Broadway shops. Desperate mothers paced the streets to soothe their feverish children, and white mourning cloths hung from every building. A third of children living in the slums 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. Sara Josephine Baker explains how this remarkable transformation was achieved. By the time she retired from the New York City Health Department in 1923, Baker was famous worldwide for saving the lives of 90,000 children. The public health programs Baker developed, many still in use today, have probably saved the lives of millions more. She also fought for women’s suffrage, toured Russia in the 1930s, and captured “Typhoid” Mary Malone, 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.
“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 skeptical of women in medicine…. 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, established in 1912.” —U.S. National Library of Medicine