Dr. Grace Marilynn James: Serving the Underserved

April 20, 2011 in 1950s-1960s, Social history

Just this year, on March 16, Dr. Grace Marilynn James was inducted into the Kentucky Women Remembered Exhibit in Frankfort, an honor given to outstanding women in Kentucky history by the Kentucky Commission on Women.  While relatively unknown to many, Dr. James was an important figure in the struggle against both racial and economic injustice.

Grace James was born in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1923. She was a very educated woman, beginning her post-secondary education at West Virginia State College.  After completing her post-graduate work there and at the University of Chicago, she entered Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, and graduated with an M.D. in 1950.  Upon earning her M.D., James moved to New York City and completed an internship and pediatric residency at Harlem Hospital; while there, she also became a clinical fellow at both Babies’ Hospital and the Vanderbilt Clinic.  James further expanded her formal training by studying child psychiatry at Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens Village and by becoming a fellow at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University’s Jacobi Hospital, where she practiced caring for children with disabilities.(1)

In a fellowship application addressed to the National Urban League, James explained that she had wanted to go to medical school because she had an “interest in human suffering,” that of African Americans in particular.  She further noted that she had been inspired by a visit to Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx to help “the ones who needed to be taught, educated and given a chance to learn sound principles of health.”(2)

James moved to Louisville in 1953, where she began teaching at the University of Louisville in a non-paying, part-time post; she was the first African American woman on the faculty at Louisville’s School of Medicine, and she continued teaching at the university for twenty-five years.(2)  When James moved to Louisville, the city hospitals were segregated by law.  Although James became the first African American woman to be granted membership in the Jefferson County Medical Society, she still had to defend her status to the medical community.(3)  Not only did she face discrimination from white practitioners because she was black, she was criticized by both white and black men for being a woman in this field and for choosing to serve the poorest clients.  James realized that there were many people other doctors were hesitant to serve because they were too poor to afford services.  James also saw that many doctors would not serve single mothers and their children.

Soon after moving to Louisville, James opened a private pediatrics practice and a walk-in clinic that would serve the impoverished residents of Louisville’s West End neighborhoods.(4)  She accepted all patients that came through her clinic, regardless of whether they could pay.  James became an advocate for both preventative care and universal health care, and spoke about the growing infant mortality rate among black babies and about the medically underserved black community.  At her own expense, James kept items such as diapers, blankets, clothes, and books on hand for the poor mothers that needed them, all at her own expense.(3)

Dr. James’ career was long and distinguished.  She headed the Council on Urban Education and established the West Louisville Health Education Program.  She founded the Teen Awareness Project, its purpose to reduce the teenage birth rate among blacks.  James also became president of the Louisville chapter for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.(1)  Eventually, she became affiliated with eight Louisville-area hospitals and became the first African American woman on the staff of Louisville Children’s Hospital.(4)

 

 

(1)  Kleber, John.  The Encyclopedia of Louisville.  (Lexington:  University Press of Kentucky, 2001).  Pp. 430-431

(2)  http://louisville.edu/uofltoday/campus-news/kentucky-commission-on-women-honors-former-faculty-member

(3)  http://women.ky.gov/about/kwr.htm

(4)  http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_165.html

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