Tragedy inspired Dr. Margaret Lawrence to pursue a career in medicine and despite facing sexism and extreme racism, she never stopped chasing her dreams. Dr. Lawrence passed last week.
Lawrence was born in August 19, 1914 in New York City to a schoolteacher mother and Episcopal minister father. She was inspired to become a doctor after the death of her infant brother. Her family mourned the child so much that it impacted her deeply and her career was set. From that experience, she sought to help children who had experienced trauma. Raised partly in Vicksburg, Miss. Lawrence moved to New York as a teen to complete her high school studies at a more challenging school.
At Cornell University, Lawrence excelled as a student despite being forced to live off-campus due to being Black. She lived with a white family, working as their housekeeper in exchange for a room in their attic.
Lawrence applied to Cornell’s medical program but was denied because a Black man, was admitted, then died of tuberculosis. It sounds comical now but the reason they denied her admission is because he didn’t make it through the program. Lawrence instead enrolled at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, graduating in 1940.
Moving south with her sociologist husband, the late Charles Lawrence, Lawrence taught at pediatrics and preventive medicine at Meharry Medical College. However, with their children in tow, they returned to New York where in 1948, Lawrence was the first Black person admitted to the New York Psychiatric Institute, becoming a pediatric psychiatrist in 1951. In 1953, she and her husband moved to Rockland County, New York, where she became the nation’s first practicing child psychiatrist in the county.
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For 21 years, Dr. Lawrence was the chief of Harlem Hospital’s Developmental Psychiatric Service for Infants and Children, retiring from the post in 1984. She continued to see patients in private practice up to 15 years ago.
Dr. Lawrence is survived by her three children, sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Rev. Paula Lawrence Wehmiller, and law professor Charles Lawrence, III.
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