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Changing the Face of Medicine

Good wintery morning! We have received the gift of so much snow I have stopped counting the feet. Next, it will be the mud. Oh, golly, oh gosh, it will be the mud and it has begun already. However, I, for one, am eternally grateful for the moisture and am dreaming of spring flowers, which will be spectacular!

Why is it so difficult for women to move past the time of hiding? I struggle with it constantly. Do you? We know we are in an age of awakening and we need to embrace our strengths, yet we often continue to focus on our weaknesses. This year will be a year of focusing more on the positive, my power, being still, and listening to the voices of my predecessors.

While a very flawed human, I have strengths but often deny them or hid them. It feels safer. That’s why writing about other women who have come before me inspires me and I hope inspires others, because I know I am not the only women who occasionally hides. The women in They Persisted, and They Roared didn’t hide! They seemed to embrace their strengths from the get-go! No wavering for them, no hiding their lights under a bushel basket. I want to be more like them this year! Join me in the dancing and howling!

“Now we move past the time of hiding into an age of awakening; embracing our strengths, our lineage, and our power as women, the voices of the priestesses, shamans, and queens flowing in our veins. We are the Women of the Circle; and we are gathering, rising and awakening to be hidden no more.

Long may we dance; long may we howl.”

~Ara, The Goddess Circle

One woman who lights me up every time I read about her is Dr. Sara Josephine Baker, “Dr. Jo.” She appears in They Persisted. She was born into relative affluence, yet remained humble and worked for her entire life with those in abject poverty to make the world a better place.

She lost her father and brother when she was very young. They both died of typhus. Living on the banks of the Hudson River, the water for home use, including drinking, came directly from the river- unfiltered. However, they were downstream from a hospital that treated typhoid cases and dumped waste directly into that same river.

After her father died, Dr. Jo shared the financial responsibilities of the little family with her mother. She gave us a full scholarship to Vassar, her mother’s alma mater, and studied at home and was determined to become a physician. Finally, finding a medical school that would admit her, she studied with the Blackwell sisters, graduating second in her class with an M.D.

Working in the worst slums of both Boston and New York, she eventually ended up in Hell’s Kitchen, which has been called the worst environmental disaster ever in our history.

Excerpt from They Persisted:

“Hell’s Kitchen is a neighborhood on the West Side of Midtown Manhattan in New York City, bordered by 34th Street (or 41st Street) to the south, 59th Street to the north, 8th Avenue to the east, and the Hudson River to the west. Until the 1970s, Hell’s Kitchen was a bastion of poor and working-class Irish Americans. Some memories from various publications state that, in the 1860s, the Manhattan neighborhood was a beastly wonderland of stenches, bloody parades, and diseases guaranteeing a horrible death. Among its meatpacking-focused highlights were slaughterhouses, gut cleansing, and fat boiling outfits, towering manure heaps, and stables devoted to the production of “swill milk”—the milk of frequently diseased cows that was consumed by the poor, to their detriment. There was a pork packing outfit on 39th street where blood and liquid offal flowed for two blocks before emptying into the river. During the hot summer weather, there was an extremely offensive odor of decomposition. Gutters ran with blood and filth, constantly contaminating the atmosphere. Fat boiling and gut cleansing establishments emitted gas and smoke from the chimneys that winds carried for miles. Thousands of loads of manure were dumped here in heaps to rot. The stench of these piles was intolerable. Dead animals, in various stages of decomposition, floated down the river. Crowded, poorly vented tenement houses where families tried to live surrounded this entire area. It was no small wonder that fever, cholera, dysentery, and infant deaths abounded. There were establishments that produced swill milk. The New York Times described it as a “filthy, bluish substance milked from cows tied up in crowded stables adjoining city distilleries and fed the hot alcoholic mash left from making whiskey. This too was doctored with plaster of Paris to take away the blueness, starch, and eggs to thicken it and molasses to give it the buttercup hue of honest Orange County milk.” Back when people were drinking the stuff, reported the Times, it probably killed 8,000 children a year. This is what families in this neighborhood had to feed their children. One shudders when attempting to comprehend human beings living there. Dr. Jo noted that “I climbed stair after stair, knocked on door after door, met drunk after drunk, filthy mother after filthy mother, dying baby after dying baby.” One day she had to defend herself by literally kicking yet another drunk husband down a flight of stairs as she was attempting to tend to a sick woman. Over 4,500 people in the district died weekly of cholera, dysentery, smallpox, typhoid, or some other illness. One-third of them were infants. Dr. Jo rolled up her sleeves and got to work.”

Dr. Josephine Baker made enormous and very critical changes that revolutionized many medical practices in America. She began training and licensing midwives; established mild stations; trained families in child care; established what are now Public Health Departments. She changed the storage of silver nitrate which is dropped into the eyes of newborns to prevent blindness but was causing blindness very thing because it had gone bad. Dr. Jo was responsible for drastically reducing infant mortality rates in New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Another fun fact, Dr. Jo also captured Typhoid Mary.


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