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    Lena Edwards and the Humanity of Medicine

    A pioneering Black gynecologist expanded the scope of patient care to consider environmental factors such as racism, poverty, and sexism.

    By G. Marie Aquilina

    October 7, 2021
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    • Laura

      This is an amazing story! Where can we find out more about Lena Edwards? I would love to read more about her. Thank you for sharing some of her story with us.

    • R

      What an important story! Thank you Plough for sharing this!

    In a 1977 interview for the Black Women Oral History Project, Dr. Lena Edwards, a Howard-educated gynecologist with fourteen honorary degrees, voiced the disgust she sometimes felt for the medical profession. Doctors, she argued, had forgotten the “humanity of medicine” and begun to treat their patients as objects. On another occasion, Edwards elaborated: “I’m so sick and tired of people being treated like desks and chairs and books, and talking about them as this disease and that disease, and not thinking about the whole person and the environment in which that person lives.”

    Edwards (1900–1986) urged doctors to see patients in a greater context, looking to issues that were nonmedical yet had real effects on wellbeing. “The quality of medicine is not just our scientific knowledge,” she said, “but the rapport the doctor has with the patient.” If doctors failed to consider environmental factors such as racism, poverty, and sexism, they would end up treating an individual patient for a societal problem. In this way, medical care sometimes became a bandage keeping nasty wounds out of sight. Edwards was especially concerned by how doctors tended to overlook the problems of “the mother who had to go home and take care of children when she’s still ill, or the woman whose husband is out of work and can’t afford to have the things that she needs for herself and the children.”

    Edwards’s experiences as a young doctor shaped these fervent beliefs. She began her career by establishing a private practice in Jersey City, where she focused on obstetrics and gynecology because, as a female doctor, she was in high demand among the immigrant communities in her area. “They would come to me because they could talk freely to me,” Edwards explained.

    Edwards would go on to work for the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital and become one of the first Black women certified as an obstetrician-gynecologist with the National Board. Later in life, she would return to Howard University as a professor and take on numerous additional responsibilities. She joined the board of directors for the Ionia Whipper Home for Unwed Mothers, which was founded by another woman graduate of Howard University’s medical school and was, at the time of its founding, the only maternity home in Washington, DC, that accepted Black women. She would also serve as chairman of the Maternal Welfare Committee, which worked to establish pre-natal clinics in DC.

    photograph of Lena Edwards

    Lena Edwards

    As Deirdre Cooper Owens writes in Medical Bondage, early American gynecology was based on the idea that women were “literally the weaker sex,” which led to a conviction “that women’s biological functions … were conditions that needed fixing.” With this foundation, research into reproductive health viewed pregnancy as a problematic condition. “Even normal female biological functions,” she writes, “were ‘problematized’ and placed under the ‘advice procedures’ of male experts who brought competencies within the orbit of an increasingly industrialized doctor-client relationship.”

    To challenge dehumanizing and discriminatory practices based on race, gender, or pregnancy status, then, was a natural extension of her medical work.

    Furthermore, Cooper Owens argues, these issues were worse for both enslaved women and immigrant women, who were considered inferior not only by sex but also by race – a kind of double biological inferiority. Edwards observed firsthand how this tendency affected Black mothers and migrant mothers, who in addition faced a legacy of decades of being subjected to medical experimentation.

    Edwards saw it as her vocation to fight for these women in the medical field. Along with other Black female doctors, Edwards challenged “the scope and definition of a physician as well as theories that pathologized race and class.” Since her private practice was in the bottom floor of her home and her clients were mainly her neighbors, she knew their families by name. She did home visits, too, and was therefore able to discuss health with them outside of a clinical setting.

    Maternal welfare was not abstract to Edwards – it had real consequences for her neighbors, and also in her own life and the lives of her daughters. To challenge dehumanizing and discriminatory practices based on race, gender, or pregnancy status, then, was a natural extension of her medical work.

    Edwards would run into this in her own life after she left her practice to work at the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital. Soon after she began there, the head called her into his office and told her that her presence on staff was a difficulty for the hospital. He said she had two “handicaps”: first, she was a woman, and second, she was Black. Perhaps, he implied, she should not be working at his hospital.

    The head was blaming Edwards for the discrimination against her: in his view, it was she who was at fault. He diagnosed her as “handicapped.”

    Edwards called out his misdiagnosis. “That is quite true,” she fired back, “but it so happens that God gave me both of those characteristics, and I don’t think there’s a human being who has the right to judge me for what he did.” Clearly her boss’s bias was the problem to be diagnosed, not the fact that she was a Black woman. Being Black was good and being a woman was good, because God had created her that way. It was doubly wrong, then, to see being a Black woman as a misfortune to her or an obstacle to her employer. What he saw as problematic she saw as God-given and, rather than being a handicap, as conferring divine dignity.

    Edwards’s Catholic faith gave her an assurance of her own worth and a deep concern for the marginalized. And her special devotion to St. Francis, who modeled giving up one’s life in service to one’s neighbors, led to a new opportunity to advocate for humane maternal healthcare. After many years of passing on her human-centered vision to students at Howard University, she once again felt called to devote her medical skills to serving others directly. She decided to leave her teaching position to go to St. Joseph’s, a Franciscan mission for migrant workers on the Texas–Mexico border.

    She had started her career working with migrant mothers, and she was sensitive to their particular struggles. The gravest mistake someone in her position could make, in her opinion, was to try “to convert [her patients] to the standards of middle-class white Americans” – that was the “most damnable thing that can happen to people socially and economically handicapped.” She stopped wearing her white uniform so that she wouldn’t scare children – her office was supposed to be warm and unintimidating, “like a kitchen.” As an interviewer from Ebony would report, her rallying cry in those years became “A maternity bed for every migrant woman.”

    Edwards got to work providing prenatal care and delivering babies in the small clinic on the mission. At the same time, she was developing an ambitious project: building a maternity hospital to be staffed by young women from the camp. Working with a committee of fifteen members of the migrant community to organize the project (a group of migrants would also serve as the hospital’s board of directors), Edwards raised funds and built Our Lady of Guadalupe Maternity Clinic.

    True to her vision of humane medicine, her work to improve the health of migrant mothers was broad in scope. “In order to be able to do a more effective job of my mission work in maternal care,” Edwards said, “it has become apparent that three major problems must be attacked. They are health, education, and economics.” In other words, improving maternal health required more than building a maternity hospital (although that was an integral and indispensable part). It also meant responding to communal issues such as unjust wages or access to education. For Edwards, working to establish a community bank or an English night school was directly linked to improving maternal welfare.

    Edwards’s work at St. Joseph’s was an attempt to build something that succeeded where hospitals like Margaret Hague failed. She had seen what happened to her field when the humanity of patients was forgotten, and she strove to demonstrate a better way. The projects she worked on and the solutions she designed point to a system of health that recognizes the dignity of the individual, in all her particularity and cultural context, and strives to serve her with mercy, love, and justice.

    Contributed By

    G. Marie Aquilina is a freelance writer and editor living in Pittsburgh. Her work can be found in Genealogies of Modernity Journal, Angelus magazine, and Convivium Journal.

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