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.
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