Little Known Black History Fact: Dr. Helen Nash

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  • Dr. Helen Nash, a Meharry Medical School graduate and Spelman College alumna, became the first black pediatrician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in 1949.

    As a child, Dr. Nash held an interest in science. She was led by her father’s footsteps; he was a general practitioner in the Atlanta, Ga. area. Despite her interest, her father was against her decision to attend medical school. She was encouraged by her mother, who was a social worker, to be sure she was treated fairly in school. Dr. Helen Nash graduated from Meharry Medical School in 1945.

    She began her training like many black physicians of the time, at historic Homer G. Phillips hospital in St. Louis, Mo.

    At Homer G. Phillips, Dr. Nash immediately lobbied to the all-male hospital board to increase the number of hand washing stations at the hospital and provide new incubators for the newborns. The change drastically reduced the rate of infections and premature mortality rates. Her other missions included the approval of air conditioning at the facility. She would work with the city mayor to decrease the amount of car batteries leaking lead in the local dumpster to improve air and life quality in the community.

    Dr. Nash was an advocate of child abuse prevention services, and was instrumental in the policy changes that led to physicians reporting mistreatment of children by parents or caretakers. In another instance, she once again worked with the mayor to increase the budget for rat eradication after seeing many patients with rat bites.

    Her work led to a new job at St. Louis Children’s hospital. She was the first black female pediatrician. Dr. Nash quickly changed the nursery policy to separate newborns rather than allowing them to sleep in groups. The rates of infection, once again, drastically decreased. Her distinguished performance led to an invitation to join the staff at the Washington University School of Medicine. She was the first black woman to receive this honor.

    As the first black pediatrician in a white male-dominated practice, Dr. Nash would see the discrimination against her on the patient charts, written by other doctors. When she admitted her first patient to Children’s Hospital, who was a little girl with typhoid, she found a note on the girl’s chart from a white doctor that read, “too bad [Dr. Nash] started treating the patient, because now we’d never know what she had.” The comment was a deliberate accusation that Dr. Nash was improperly diagnosing her patients.

    Despite the few pitfalls of racism, Dr. Nash was a well-respected physician in her community.

    Dr. Helen Nash passed away in October 2012 at 91 years old.

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