A Monty Resident Discovered the True Identity of Typhoid Mary, and Saved Millions of Lives
By Barbara A. Preston l March 5, 2021
A remarkable woman once lived on Trevena Farm on Orchard Road in Montgomery.
Sara Josephine Baker, MD, was a public health crusader, a suffragette, an author, and a feminist who lived with her female life partner, the writer Ida Wylie, from 1920 until her death in the Skillman section of Montgomery Township in 1945. Notably, Baker was the public health official who discovered the identity of “Typhoid Mary.”
"By the time she retired in 1923, Baker was famous worldwide for saving the lives of 90,000 children," according to an article in The New York Review of Books. "The programs she developed, many still in use today, have saved the lives of millions more."
Baker was a pioneer in several respects. “The fact that [Baker] achieved so much professionally as a woman in the medical field is made more impressive by the fact that in 1900, only 6 percent of physicians were women,” according to Sarah H. Prager's article in them.us, an online publication that chronicles and celebrates the stories and achievements of the LGBTQ community.
"When she was 16 her father died — of typhoid fever, as it happens — and the Baker household needed a wage earner. Medicine was young Jo’s choice, its chief attraction being its utter unsuitability for a girl of her background: 'When I encountered only argument and disapproval, my native stubbornness made me decide to study medicine at all costs and in spite of everyone.'" — The New York Times
Baker became part of the early LGBTQ community of Greenwich Village in New York, where she focused on the health of poor people. For many years, Baker lived with Louise Pearce (an American pathologist at the Rockefeller Institute who helped develop a treatment for African sleeping sickness trypanosomiasis) and author Ida A. R. Wylie.
“All were members of Heterodoxy, a feminist biweekly luncheon discussion club, of which many members were lesbian or bisexual,” according to Prager.
In the mid 1930s, after Baker retired, the three women lived together at Trevanna Farm, Skillman. After Baker’s death in 1945, Wylie and Pearce continued living there until both died in 1959. Their home was described as a “most delightful and interesting place to live and study. Her shelves were crowded with many old editions of medical treasures, the latest scientific literature and the latest works on international questions.
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She had a wonderful collection of Chinese carvings and porcelains.” Wylie and Pearce are buried alongside each other at Henry Skillman Burying Ground, Trevenna Farm’s family cemetery. Baker is buried in a family plot in Poughkeepsie, NY.
Read more about Baker in her book, Fighting for Life. Below is an excerpt from The New York Review of Books:
The book tells about New York’s Lower East Side, which 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 who lived on the Lower East Side 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.
(Written in honor of Women's History Month, March 2021)