Dr. Forrest Baker
Physician, surgeon, and sanatorium administrator Forrest Pitt Baker was born on February 2, 1889, at Hot Springs, Garland County, Arkansas. He was the son of Dr. William Pitt Baker and Adelia Dora Hays. His father was a West Point graduate who made the land run of the Cherokee Strip settling in Cleveland, Pawnee County, Oklahoma, and later served as medical officer with the Philippine Constabulary for nine years. Upon their return to the United States, the family resided in Amity, Arkansas.
Forrest Baker studied electrical engineering at Oklahoma A. and M. College in Stillwater before entering medical school. In 1912, he graduated from the University of Arkansas’ School of Medicine. In Little Rock, he interned at City Hospital from 1912-1913 and was a resident physician at St. Vincent’s Infirmary in 1913. Dr. Baker served as resident physician at the State Sanatorium of Arkansas at Booneville from 1913-17 and from 1922-27. From 1917 to 1922, he was stationed in Panama serving as a medical officer; first as a commissioned First Lieutenant of the Medical Corps, U.S.A. (1917-20) and then as a Captain (1920-22).
On January 1, 1928, Dr. Baker was appointed by Oklahoma Governor Henry B. Johnson as superintendent of the Eastern Oklahoma State Tuberculosis Sanatorium succeeding Dr. Richard M. Shepard. From 1928 to 1966, the sanatorium was his sole vocation and home where he resided with his beloved wife, Maude, and their two daughters, Mary and Martha.
He worked tirelessly throughout his career, but no more so than during World War II when he served without his three medical assistants who were in military service. Held in high esteem by colleagues for his skill and expertise, he was a fellow of the American Medical Association and the American College of Chest Physicians, a member of the American College of Chest Surgeons and the National Tuberculosis Association, an honorary life member of the Oklahoma Congress of Parents and Teachers, a member of the International Lions Club of Talihina, Mason 32nd degree, Indian Consistory Number 2, the Shriners, in addition to serving as a medical advisor to the state welfare department.
Dr. Baker recognized that the tuberculosis sanatorium was among the most expensive state institutions to operate as its patients required rest and housing, medical and nursing care, substantial food, laundry services, and medicine – all at state expense. As a result of his medical expertise and management skills, state administrations regarded the Eastern Oklahoma Tuberculosis Sanatorium as an example of a well-managed, well-appointed state institution. According to a 1947 newspaper article “Dr. Baker established a reputation for independence from political and patronage interference at a state institution virtually without parallel in Oklahoma”.
He was the recipient of numerous honors and awards during his career, among them the University of Oklahoma’s Distinguished Service Citation in 1949. The award was bestowed upon Dr. Baker “in recognition of a career dedicated to the cause of tuberculosis sufferers in Oklahoma, and for outstanding achievement in their behalf and in behalf of the state, which he serves as superintendent of the tuberculosis sanatorium in Talihina”. In addition to Dr. Baker, OU’s 1949 Distinguished Service Citation recipients were oilmen Frank Phillips and Lew Wentz, coach and athletic director Benjamin Owen, and author and historian Muriel Wright.
None of the accolades he received were as important as those he received from former patients and staff. An extraordinary number of letters, notes, and photos that span his years at the sanatorium are evidence of a life dedicated to the service of others. In 1946, former patients established the Oklahoma Recovery Club to eliminate the stigma associated with those who had been afflicted by tuberculosis and who had recovered. As a result of improved treatment methods and positive public opinion, the club redirected their efforts to aiding tubercular patients and assisting them in vocational rehabilitation, and supporting the National Tuberculosis Association’s (today, the American Lung Association) annual Christmas Seal campaign. Members held their annual meetings in Oklahoma City or Tulsa where they conducted club business and celebrated the birthday of their friend and former physician.
At the beginning of his career in the early 20th century, the only effective treatment for tuberculosis was bed rest, good food, and fresh air which could take years to achieve. By the 1950’s, physicians were prescribing drug treatment combinations that resulted in a 90-95% tuberculosis cure rate in a matter of months.
In 1964, Dr. Baker’s administrative skills were tested when the state’s Legislative Council Audit Committee considered consolidating the Eastern and Western Oklahoma Tuberculosis Sanatoriums. At one public meeting over 300 former patients and civic leaders opposed closing the Eastern Oklahoma Tuberculosis Sanatorium and praised its long-time superintendent. Dr. Baker cited significant factors in the transmission of the disease; the poverty level, the number of welfare cases, and the living considerations in southeast Oklahoma, to the committee. Ultimately, the committee’s decision was in favor of the Eastern Oklahoma Tuberculosis Sanatorium. Many consider the state’s decision to be the pinnacle of Dr. Baker’s career in service to his profession and community.
In 1966, Forrest Pitt Baker retired and just as his life was changing, so was sanatorium life. Many of the nation’s sanatoriums were closed or demolished when, as a result of effective drug therapy, outpatient treatment, and improved social and economic conditions, tuberculosis no longer posed a major public health threat.
In 1972, the Western Oklahoma Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Clinton was closed and its patients transferred to Talihina. State hospitals for tuberculosis patients were now limited to EOTS in Talihina and the Veterans Hospital in Oklahoma City. In May 1973, the State Legislature officially changed the name of the Eastern Oklahoma Tuberculosis Sanatorium to the Oklahoma State Sanatorium.
Forrest Pitt Baker, M.D. died at the age of 84 on May 19, 1973 in McAlester, Oklahoma, following a short illness. He was buried at Roselawn Cemetery in Little Rock, Pulaski County, Arkansas.
Dr. Forrest Pitt Baker dedicated 38 years of his life to the Eastern Oklahoma Tuberculosis Sanatorium. In 1975, after 54 years in operation the sanatorium was transferred from the Oklahoma Department of Health to the Department of Veterans Affairs. At that time it was determined that over 14,000 first-time tuberculosis patients - not including patient re-admissions or patients receiving outpatient treatment at the sanatorium’s clinic or clinics throughout the region - had been treated, primarily under the supervision of Dr. Forrest Pitt Baker.