Colorado's Healthcare Heritage
A Chronology of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
Justina Ford, MD (1871-1952) — Denver's Baby Doctor
In 1902, Dr. Justina Laurena Ford — a 31-year-old African-American native of Knoxville, Illinois, who had received her MD in 1900 from Hering Medical College, Chicago — arrived in Denver, where she practiced as an obstetrician, gynecologist, and pediatrician for more than fifty years. She delivered at least 5,000 and probably about 7,000 babies, and she gained a working knowledge of the languages she needed to care for her patients.
From 1891 until 1894, Dr. Ford had been resident physician at the Tuskegee Institute, about 40 miles east of Montgomery, Alabama. She had most recently been a hospital administrator in Normal, Alabama.
When Dr. Ford arrived in Denver — after her husband, the Rev. Dr. John Elijah Ford, became the pastor of Denver's Zion Baptist Church — there were five male African-American physicians, but they were not permitted to join the American Medical Association or the Colorado State Medical Society. Membership in those segregated organizations was required for physicians who wanted to practice at Denver hospitals, and they weren't desegregated until 1950. Some Denver hospitals would not even accept African-Americans or other minorities as patients.
Eileen Welsome did find that Dr. Ford was listed as visiting staff during the late 1920s and early 1930s at Denver General Hospital, which seems to have made it clear to her that she was welcome to return at any time. For whatever reasons, she chose not to accept that offer.
When Dr. Ford first applied for her license to practice medicine, the clerk said, "I feel dishonest taking a fee from you. You've got two strikes against you to begin with. First of all, you're a lady, and second, you're colored." She later said, "I fought like a tiger against those things." She worked from her home office and made house calls for Hispanic, Native American, Chinese, Japanese, and Greek patients and-as she put it — "plain whites" and "plain colored."
Dr. Justina Ford — widely known as "The Baby Doctor" — was a proponent of natural childbirth, and most babies were still born at home anyway so her exclusion from the hospitals was annoying but it wasn't a major obstacle for an OB/GYN and pediatrician. She was often given goods and services by patients who couldn't pay, and she often helped families by providing food, bedding, and coal.
About 15% of the babies she delivered were African-American; her philosophy was "whatever color they show up, that's the way I take them." After her yearly applications were refused for nearly half a century, Dr. Ford was finally invited to join the Colorado Medical Society in 1950, two years before her death at age 81. The Denver Inquirer's obituary said that she was Colorado's "first and only Negro woman M.D."
A few months before her death, Dr. Ford was quoted as saying, ". . . When all the fears, hate, and even some death is over, we will really be brothers as God intended us to be in this land. This I believe. For this I have worked all my life."
On October 14, 1952, Justina Laurena Ford, MD, 81 — the African-American ob/gyn who had delivered as many as 7,000 babies since she began practicing in Denver in 1902 — died of nephrosclerosis. Despite prejudice, segregation, and exclusion from the medical societies and hospitals, Dr. Ford became one of Denver's most beloved physicians.
In 1985, Dr. Justina Ford was inducted into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame, and in 1989, the Colorado Medical Society declared her to be one of Colorado's medical pioneers.
In 1984, Dr. Ford's Victorian home at 2334 Arapaho Street (a few blocks east of today's Coors Field) was scheduled for demolition, but it was bought and moved to its present location at 31st and California, where it was restored. Her office was on the first floor, and she and her husband lived upstairs.Dr. Ford's home now houses the Black American West Museum.
"Justina Laurena Carter Ford," on the National Library of Medicine website: http://1.usa.gov/123DfMf
Magdalena Gallegos: "Doctor Justina Ford, A Medical Legacy Continues," The Urban Spectrum, September 1988, pp. 4-5.
Mark Harris: "The Forty Years of Justina Ford," Negro Digest March 1950, pp. 43-45.
Connie Johnson: "Dr. Justina Ford: Preserving the Legacy," Odyssey West, March 1988, pp. 4-5.
Joyce Lohse: Justina Ford, Medical Pioneer. Palmer Lake, Colorado: Filter Press, 2004.
Marilyn Griggs Riley: High Altitude Attitudes: Six Savvy Colorado Women. Foreword by Thomas J. Noel. Boulder: Johnson Books, 2006. Includes a chapter on Dr. Ford.
Jessie Carney Smith (ed.): "Justina L. Ford (1871-1952): Physician, Humanitarian" in Notable Black American Women, Vol. 2. Thomson Gale, 1996, pp. 229-231.
Wallace Yvonne Tollette: Justina Ford, M.D., Colorado's First Black Woman Doctor. Denver: Western Images Publications, 2005.
Eileen Welsome: Healers and Hellraisers: Denver Health's First 150 Years. Denver: Denver Health Foundation, 2011.
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Copyright © 2013 Thomas J. Sherlock
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