At the turn of the last century, many remained sceptical of both germ theory and preventative medicine. One public health official fought to change that – and saved thousands of lives.
The “suicide ward” is what New York City health inspectors called Manhattan’s Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th Century. With thousands of people packed into a single square mile, typhoid fever, measles, dysentery, and other contagious diseases found plenty of carriers. And in neglected tenement neighborhoods like this one, deficient sanitation and social services provided fertile breeding ground for disease-causing microorganisms.
The already poor conditions in tenement housing were made worse by the New York City Health Department’s neglect. In 1908, when Sara Josephine Baker became director of the department’s Bureau of Child Hygiene, the first of its kind in the country, she took a more hands-on approach. Turning her bureau’s attention to tenement neighbourhoods, she set up clean milk stations, dispatched trained nurses, and educated mothers in the science of germs and child hygiene.
At the time, infant mortality was startlingly, and embarrassingly, high for one of America’s most modern cities. In New York City alone, one-third of children died before the age of five, and on average, 1,500 infants died each summer. The numbers could have been even higher; when Baker began her job, she discovered that fellow inspectors were not reporting all sick infants, or inspecting all parts of the city.