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.
About the Author
Helen Epstein is a writer specializing in public health and an adjunct professor at Bard College. She has advised numerous organizations, including the United States Agency for International Development, the World Bank, Human Rights Watch, and UNICEF. She is the author of The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa and has contributed articles to many publications, including The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Magazine.
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FIGHTING FOR LIFE
By S. JOSEPHINE BAKER
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKSCopyright © 1939 S. Josephine Baker
All rights reserved.
My impulse to try to do things about hopeless situations appears to have cropped out first when I was about six years old, and it should be pointed out that the method I used was characteristically direct. I was all dressed up for some great occasion—a beautiful white lacy dress with a blue sash and light blue silk stockings and light blue kid shoes—and inordinately vain about it. While waiting for Mother to come down, I wandered out in front of the house to sit on the horse block and admire myself and hope that someone would come along and see me in all my glory.
Presently a spectator did arrive—a little colored girl about my size but thin and peaked and hungry looking, wearing only a ragged old dress the color of ashes. I have never seen such dumb envy in any human being's face before or since. Child that I was, I could not stand it; it struck me right over the heart. I could not bear the idea that I had so much and she had so little. So I got down off the horse block and took off every stitch I had on, right down to the blue shoes that were the joy of my infantile heart and gave everything, underwear and all, to the little black girl. I watched her as she scampered away, absolutely choked with bliss. Then I walked back into the house, completely naked, wondering why I had done it and how to explain my inexplicable conduct. Oddly enough both Father and Mother seemed to understand pretty well what had gone on in my mind. They were flue people, my father and mother.
I know that women of my generation who struck out on their own are supposed to have become rebellious because they felt cramped and suppressed and unhappy as children in an alien environment. It is a convenient formula and no doubt perfectly applicable in many cases. But it does not fit mine. I was reared in a thoroughly conventional tradition and took to it happily. I understood that after I left school I would go to Vassar, and then, I supposed, I would get married and raise a family and that would be that. Until events of the sort that are notoriously beyond one's control forced me to take bewildered thought for the morrow, I had no more purpose in life than a million other American girls being brought up just as I was in the eighties and nineties.
It would have taken a pretty demanding, not to say peevish, kind of child to fail to adjust to the family environment in which I was reared. We were reasonably well to do as wealth went in Poughkeepsie, so I had none of that precocious sense of responsibility which children often derive from straitened family incomes. Father was one of the most eminent lawyers in town; so eminent that; when I was making a speech in Poughkeepsie several years ago, I received a large basket of flowers with a card: "From the members of the Dutchess County Bar to the daughter of O. D. M. Baker." That was about thirty years after his death and it went straight to the heart of a daughter one of whose earliest resolves was to make it up to Father for having been born a girl. There is no particular point in emphasizing that ambition or its cause. Father was not one of those childish people who take disappointment out on children. But I did happen to arrive in the world as the third daughter in a row and I heard family legends about Father's remarks when the nurse congratulated him on Daughter Number Three. Father always knew his own mind. He had known his own mind ever since he was a boy, when he ran away from a stepmother he disliked and educated himself into becoming a proverbially brilliant lawyer. The education was his first brilliant piece of work. He was one of those rare examples of self-educated people who really are educated.
He did things thoroughly. His professional education was sound and adequate. When he bought shoes, made to order in New York City, he ordered them seven pairs at a time, all exactly alike, and wore each pair only one day a week which, of course, was the best possible way to get maximum mileage out of each pair. When he went in for amateur carpentry for relaxation from the strain of business, he filled the attic with five times as many elaborate tools as the ordinary cabinetmaker uses, and became a first-class craftsman. He had been devoted to fishing all of his life. When he died, his fishing equipment included thirty-nine split bamboo rods, not to mention all kinds of odd tackle, and nearly thirteen thousand artificial flies all arranged around in cases in his library. By the time I could stand alone I was being taught to cast a line and every summer we spent a month or two at the Balsam Lake Club in the Catskill Mountains where we all fished in the Beaverkill Creek or in the quiet mountain lake which was part of the club's property. There were odd times of fishing in the Dutchess County lakes and streams mud I can still drop a fly in an eddy with a subtlety that bodes ill for trout in the vicinity.
A sober, quiet man who never uttered an unnecessary word. His mother, who died when he was quite young, must have had romantic ambitions for him, because she named him: Orlando Daniel Mosher Baker. When he ran away from home, he came to Poughkeepsie from his nearby birthplace in Hyde Park, and was presently studying law in the office of the Honorable Homer A. Nelson. One day Mr. Nelson asked his young clerk to dinner to meet a young Vassar girl named Jenny Brown whose father, worried by the idea of having a daughter away from home at a new-fangled college, had asked his friend, Mr. Nelson, to look out for her. The bright young clerk and the pretty college girl liked each other on sight and the inevitable happened.
There were some fine and strange names in my family background, on my mother's side. My grandmother Brown was born in Boston. She was Arvilla Danforth, a direct descendant of the Samuel Danforth who was one of the committee to vote the money which made possible the founding of Harvard College. There was a curious trend in that branch of the Danforth family for they named their four daughters Arvilla, Permilta, Lucilla and Marilla. I knew only my grandmother, a fine woman of the old school, and my great-aunt Marilla who married Dr. Bleeker L. Hovey of Rochester, New York, and went with him as a nurse throughout the war between the states. As plain Jenny Brown, my mother inherited nothing of this richness of nomenclature; but she had a touch of the pioneer in her, a natural result of the same spirit which led her father, Merritt H. Brown who was born in Bennington, Vermont, to take his bride from Boston and trek out to the little settlement in Dansville, New York. There he and his wife brought up their family of seven children. My mother, who was the next to the youngest child, started out in the same spirit when she went to Poughkeepsie and, on the first day of the opening of Vassar College, enrolled herself as a student there. By pure chance, or perhaps by alphabetical arrangement, she appears on the record as the first, or one of the first, students to enter Matthew Vassar's new college for women. Fifty years after her enrollment, she was a guest of honor at the College's celebration of its half-century of progress and saw herself, in the college play, Milestones, as "Jenny Brown" portrayed in old-fashioned costume entering the college and talking to Matthew Vassar.
Our Poughkeepsie house was a fine sample of a kind of architecture which has left an ineffaceable mark on Hudson River towns: three stories, gray slate mansard roof, veranda across the front, patch of front lawn and a stretch of back lawn running through to the next street, decorated with trees and a children's play house. All it lacked to be perfect was a set of lightning rods. Evidently Father was one of the few citizens of Poughkeepsie sufficiently strong minded to resist the blandishments of the ever-present lightning-rod salesman. My father and mother went to live in this house when they were first married and we four children were all born there. My oldest sister, Arvilla, died in infancy; my next older sister, Mary, lived until about twelve years ago; my brother, Robert Nelson Millerd Baker, died when he was thirteen; and now I am the only one left of that vigorous and very happy family.
There was plenty of room in our house and we made the most of it. Only on rare occasions were we without guests. It seemed to me that there were always people coming or going or staying. Innumerable friends made it a stopping place. There were my numerous cousins from Amherst College who always came for the holidays and many of the students from the thriving Riverside Military School in town which had a great reputation as an educational institution in those days and drew boys from all over the United States. There were always relays of Vassar students who would come for the week ends and bring with them any girls who they thought looked homesick. Dr. Kendrick, who was then the President of Vassar, used to call it "The Vassar Annex," but it was more than that. I belonged to a hospitable family.
There was little to Vassar College at that time but the old main building, a gymnasium and the astronomical observatory which naturally followed from the fact that Maria Mitchell, the great woman astronomer, was a member of the faculty. It was strict, too, much stricter than the present-day girls' boarding school. The girls were not allowed even to come into Poughkeepsie without a teacher as an escort, though that seemed to be waived when they came to see us. We knew all about it and were as much at home with the personnel of the institution as if they had been our cousins. Commencement time, Founders Day, and "Phil" would mean as much company and jollification as Christmas and always rated with circus day in my juvenile calendar.
It took something big to be a great occasion too, for people lived gaily in that era. I do not know what charts of the business cycle have to say about it, but as I look back, it seems to me to have been an ample, affluent time. I think the gay nineties deserved their name; certainly the earlier part of that decade was a joyous time and even before that we were gay enough; even the children were.
There was always something going on, some simple, cheerful, comradely occasion among people who all knew and liked each other. We took full advantage of being on the Hudson River and one of my major accolades of that time was when the Poughkeepsie paper said that I pulled "one of the best oars among the girls in town." There were the clam bakes which were held a few miles up the river, the kind of clam bakes that are rare today. Starting with a stone-lined pit in the ground which in preparation was heated to a white heat, the ashes were cleaned away and then successive layers of bluefish, chicken, green corn and dozens of clams were covered over to bake into a delectable meal fit for the gods. There were picnics and boating parties in plenty and, when the first college boat race of the big Poughkeepsie rowing regatta was instituted, we knew everyone connected with the management and I saw this first race from the judges' launch, which has spoiled me ever since for anything so distantly dull as an observation train along the bank of the river. In the winter our life became even more exciting with ice-skating and ice-boating on the frozen Hudson. It is an easy cliché to say that the seasons have changed, but our winters then were long and cold and the river was solidly frozen over for weeks.
Skating kept you warm in your own right, but you came back from an icy cruise at lightning speed on an ice-boat almost as frozen as the Hudson. Ice-yachting was rare sport when one could lie out at full length in the tiny cockpit and fly along, often on one runner, racing with the crack trains along the bank and often making a speed of sixty miles an hour. But you wanted it to be cold, knife-blade cold in the moonlight with a big fire glowing on the bank to come back to just when you thought your face and feet would never be able to thaw out again. There was bob-sledding on the long hills in town when ten or twelve of us would pile ourselves on the long sled and start off on what seemed to us a perilous trip. We always found some friendly horses and driver who would pull us up the hill again to repeat the performance. Sometimes in the evening and effectively chaperoned, a dozen or fifteen youngsters would pile into a long; four-horse sled, packed with straw, and drive out into the country to a special farmhouse where huge bowls of oyster stew would be waiting when the sled's runners creaked in the yard. On the way home we sang like frogs in the spring, sang "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" and "Seeing Nellie Home" and "Clementine" and "After the Ball Is Over" and that song about a bicycle built for two.
Whether in town or country things were simply and generously managed in my world. The whole family were always going on visits into the country, old-fashioned, pre-commuter Dutchess County country, perhaps to a relative's house, perhaps to that of a prosperous farmer who was a client of Father's. The home was always a lovely old place and completely innocent of heating in the bedrooms. The family were usually realists and slept in woolen sheets all winter. But, winter or not, we city folks, who also were guests of honor, had beautiful home-woven linen sheets on our beds and froze to death in consequence. It was worth it, however, in view of the breakfast you would get after arising and dressing with your breath smoking in front of you. You breakfasted in the comfortable great kitchen, cheek by jowl with the huge Dutch oven where the bread was baked and all the other cooking done over the roaring fire; breakfasted on huge bowls of oatmeal, ham and eggs, sausages, pork chops, steak, fried potatoes, stacks of hot biscuits and mounds of griddle cakes. Those breakfasts are among my most vivid childhood memories and I cannot today pass the old Perkins place on the South Road without a nostalgic feeling for the wholly lovely week ends I have spent there. There's no denying it, children are greedy little things and to make an impression on their stomachs is the surest way to be remembered.
At appropriate seasons, in town, there were candy-pulls, more formal luncheons, dances galore with the fast and swooping waltzes, the polka and the redowa, for dancing was active exercise in those days. We had many cotillions then with gay favors, cotillions which we began in our dancing-school days and I kept up until I left home. There were the gay balls which followed the annual visits of the Yale or Harvard or Amherst College Glee Club to our town. One of my loveliest remembrances is of the year when I was lame and the entire Amherst Glee Club came up to our house in the afternoon and gave me, as sole audience, their entire program of the evening's concert to which I couldn't go. In the summer, in later years, there was tennis; I became a fairly acceptable player and won many tournaments in the Hudson River towns. I do not mean that all this happened when I was a child. It is all mixed up in my memory for, until I was seventeen, the world was a unit with no gaps or turning points. It all seems very hectic and gay as I look back upon it.
Of course I can find a few special characteristics creeping out, if I look for them. Trying to make it up to Father for being a girl, which went right on even after the next arrival delighted the household by being a boy, did turn me into a tomboy type in the early days. I was an enthusiastic baseball player and trout-fisher and still like both of these amusements fifty years later. My pet reading was neither Elsie Dinsmore nor fairy stories, but the classic stories of Horatio Alger, Jr., and Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus as it appeared in that lovable old magazine, Harper's Young People. The circus was very important in my life. The night before the circus came to town, my brother and I always went to bed with strings tied to our toes and dangling out of the windows. Our confederate was the local Poughkeepsie bad boy, whom we were forbidden to know and whom, in consequence, we cultivated on every possible occasion. As soon as the circus arrived, he ran to our house and jerked the strings. We got up, dressed and crept out and went down to the circus lot where they were unloading elephants and erecting tents with shouting and heaving on ropes and hammering in stakes with smashing sledge hammer% all in the weird, savage light of kerosene flares. Then, so dazzled and excited we felt a little sick, back we stole just as it was getting light, undressed and got back into bed in time to be summoned from below: "Children! Get up at once or you will be late for school!" Lots of Poughkeepsie youngsters would be unaccountably drowsy in school on circus day, but they were all boys except me. And for weeks after the circus left my brother and I did nothing but play at being "Mademoiselle Jeannette and Monsieur Ajax, the World's Most Graceful and Daring Aerial Artistes" on the trapeze in our play-house.
Excerpted from FIGHTING FOR LIFE by S. JOSEPHINE BAKER. Copyright © 1939 S. Josephine Baker. Excerpted by permission of NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS.
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What People are Saying About This
“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. She devised wardrobe strategies to minimize her femininity—man-tailored suits and shirts, stiff collars and ties—joking that her colleagues didn’t think of her as a woman and often disparaged women physicians in conversation with her. 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