The Secret Gay Lives of Historical Figures: Sara Josephine Baker

By: Bryan K. Ludeña Campoverde

At the turn of the last century, many people remained skeptical of both germ theory and preventative medicine. However, one public health official challenged these beliefs and single-handedly saved thousands of lives. Sara Josephine Baker, the director of the Bureau of Child Hygiene in the New York City Health Department, transformed the city’s public health landscape through her tireless efforts. By implementing clean milk stations, dispatching trained nurses, and educating mothers about germs and child hygiene, Baker significantly reduced infant mortality rates and set a precedent for cities across the country.

From Neglect to Action

In the early 1900s, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was referred to as the “suicide ward” by health inspectors due to its unsanitary conditions and high rates of contagious diseases. Neglected tenement neighborhoods provided a fertile breeding ground for disease-causing microorganisms, exacerbated by the New York City Health Department’s neglect. However, when Sara Josephine Baker assumed the role of director of the Bureau of Child Hygiene in 1908, she took a proactive approach to address these issues.

Transforming Infant Mortality Rates

Infant mortality rates in New York City were alarmingly high, with one-third of children dying before the age of five. On average, 1,500 infants succumbed to death each summer. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, Baker focused her efforts on tenement neighborhoods. She established clean milk stations, dispatched trained nurses to provide healthcare services, and educated mothers about germs and child hygiene. Within her first year as director, Baker’s initiatives led to an estimated 1,200 fewer infant deaths, marking a significant decline in mortality rates.

Championing Preventative Health Measures

Sara Josephine Baker’s dedication to public health extended beyond infant mortality reduction. Throughout her 30-year career, she concentrated on improving the social context of disease in tenement neighborhoods. Her initiatives included expanding education programs on childcare, creating foster programs, and instituting welfare monitoring for children in schools and institutions. By the time Baker retired in the 1930s, it was estimated that she had prevented the death of 90,000 infants in New York City alone. Her tireless efforts transformed the Lower East Side from a “suicide ward” to a model of public health success.

Pioneering in a Male-Dominated Field

Sara Josephine Baker’s accomplishments were particularly remarkable in a male-dominated field. As a lesbian, feminist, and suffragist, she faced gender discrimination and numerous obstacles throughout her career. To succeed, Baker minimized her femininity, wearing masculine-tailored suits and adopting a no-nonsense approach. Her determination and expertise earned her the respect and admiration of her colleagues, even if they sometimes forgot she was a woman.

The Importance of Gay People in the World and Inclusivity

It is important to recognize that every individual, regardless of their sexual orientation, plays a vital role in shaping the world we live in. Gay people have made significant contributions to various fields, including healthcare, science, arts, and social justice. Embracing inclusivity is crucial to fostering a society where everyone can thrive and contribute their unique perspectives and talents. In the case of Sara Josephine Baker, her achievements exemplify how diversity and inclusion drive innovation and progress. By acknowledging and valuing the contributions of gay people and promoting inclusivity, we create a more vibrant, equitable, and compassionate world for all.

A Lasting Legacy: Sara Josephine Baker’s Influence

Sara Josephine Baker’s impact on public health extended far beyond New York City. Her successful initiatives and dedication to preventative medicine became a model for cities across the United States. In 1912, the United States Children’s Bureau was established, influenced by Baker’s work, and committed to improving child and maternal health. Her innovative approach to public health, focusing on preventative measures and community engagement, revolutionized the field and saved countless lives.

Importance of Inclusivity and Diversity in Public Health

Sara Josephine Baker’s story also underscores the importance of inclusivity and diversity in the field of public health. By challenging societal norms and breaking down barriers, Baker demonstrated that diversity of thought and lived experiences leads to more comprehensive and effective solutions. Inclusivity is not only about embracing different backgrounds but also about recognizing and valuing the contributions of individuals from all walks of life, including those who identify as LGBTQ+.

Baker’s experience as a lesbian in a male-dominated field highlights the resilience and determination required to overcome discrimination and bias. Her accomplishments serve as a reminder that everyone deserves equal opportunities to contribute and make a positive impact, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Moving Forward: A Call for Continued Inclusivity

As we celebrate the legacy of Sara Josephine Baker, it is essential to carry forward her spirit of inclusivity and promote diversity in the field of public health. By fostering an environment that welcomes and supports individuals from all backgrounds, we can create a more comprehensive understanding of health challenges and develop solutions that address the needs of diverse populations. Furthermore, recognizing the importance of inclusivity in public health extends beyond the workforce. It also involves ensuring that healthcare systems and services are accessible, inclusive, and respectful to individuals of all sexual orientations and gender identities. By addressing disparities and promoting equal access to healthcare, we can improve health outcomes and create a more equitable society.

Joining the Insure Equality community is an opportunity to actively participate in advancing inclusivity in public health and championing equality for all. By becoming a member, you will have access to a supportive network of like-minded individuals who are dedicated to promoting equitable healthcare. Engage with us on Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube to stay updated on our initiatives, join discussions, and contribute your voice to the conversation. Together, we can drive positive change, dismantle barriers, and promote equal access to healthcare.

Let us honor Sara Josephine Baker’s legacy by taking action, raising awareness, and working towards a future where every individual receives equitable and inclusive healthcare. Join the Insure Equality community today and be a part of the movement towards a healthier, more inclusive world.


BBC Future. (2020, May 14). SJ Baker: The New York woman who transformed public health. Retrieved from

Parry, M. S. (n.d.). Sara Josephine Baker (1873–1945). American Journal of Public Health, 94(8), 1324–1325. Retrieved from

Sara Josephine Baker. (n.d.). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

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