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Black History Month Health Care Heroes: Dr. Edith Irby Jones

Rounding out our series on health care pioneers for Black History Month, we are talking about Edith Irby Jones, the first Black student to attend and graduate from the University of Arkansas Medical School (now UAMS) in Little Rock. Jones was a proponent of desegregation of higher education in the south and an excellent doctor, educator, and philanthropist in Arkansas.

Edith Irby Jones was born on December 23, 1927, near Conway, Arkansas. Her father died when Jones was eight, so she and her family moved to Hot Springs. Her older sister died from typhoid fever at age 12, largely due to the family’s lack of access to medical care. When later asked about her career choice, Irby stated “I was inspired to become a doctor with the death of my sister. I felt that if I had been a physician, or if there had been other physicians who would have been available, or if we had adequate money — which may not be true — that this physician would have come to us more frequently and that she would not have died.” Irby herself even suffered from rheumatic fever when she was seven. She experienced so much pain in her joints from rheumatic fever that she could not attend school for a year. These experiences were the impetus for Jones’ career in medicine. She wanted to help those who could not afford standard medical care so they would not experience the same hardships she had.

Jones graduated from Knoxville College in Tennessee, majoring in chemistry, biology, and physics. She was an excellent student and was accepted to several medical schools. She chose the University of Arkansas Medical School (now UAMS) in Little Rock over the rest, largely because the in-state tuition was much cheaper than the others. After choosing UAMS over the other schools, Jones became the first Black student to be accepted to UAMS and the first accepted at any medical school in the South. Her accomplishment was reported in many national publications, including Life, Time, Ebony, and the Washington Post.

Edith UAMS

This famous photo, taken in 1949 by Phil Stern of Life Magazine, shows Jones standing in the hallway at UAMS, surrounded by her white classmates. She later shared in an interview that the photo above played a role in complete strangers from across the country sending her money to ensure that she had sufficient funds for tuition, room, and board.

Though she had been accepted to attend classes, Jones was not allowed to use the same cafeteria, lodging, or bathrooms as the other students at UAMS. However, many of her classmates chose to eat and study with her at her apartment, resisting the institution’s segregationist rules. In her class of 91, she was the only Black student, and one of only three female students. Though many of her classmates were veterans and treated her with respect, Jones still faced prejudice and segregation. She recounts a story of her school days when she and one of her girlfriends (who was white) rode a city bus from home to the school and as they could not sit together without fearing arrest, they stood for the entire ride, talking. Word made it back to her friend’s father that someone feared the girls would be in danger, so he arranged to get them a car, an almost unheard-of luxury among their classmates. During her second year in medical school, she married Dr. James B. Jones; they had three children. Jones earned her MD in 1952, becoming the college’s first Black graduate.

HCH Edith Jones Reunion

Jones at her 25-year class reunion for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in LIttle Rock; circa 1977; courtesy of Arkansas State Archives

That same year, she opened a general practice in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where she stayed until 1959, when she moved with her family to Houston, Texas. She interned at the Baylor College of Medicine Affiliated Hospital, the first Black woman to do so. The hospital segregated her and limited her patient rosters, but she still worked hard to serve the Baylor community. She completed the last three months of her residency at Freedman’s Hospital in Washing DC. She was one of several Black physicians who founded Mercy Hospital and one of 12 doctors who owned and developed Park Plaza Hospital. She even helped found the Houston Hospital, which was renamed the Edith Irby Jones M.D. Health Care Center in her honor.

In 1985, she was elected the first female president of the National Medical Association (NMA). She was also the only founding female member of the Association of Black Cardiologists (ABC). She was involved in various medical groups and taught and provided health care in countries outside the U.S., including Haiti, Mexico, Cuba, China, Russia, and Africa. Jones was integral in developing two international clinics, which now bear her name: the Dr. Edith Irby Jones Clinic in Vaudreuil, Haiti, and the Dr. Edith Irby Jones Emergency Clinic in Veracruz, Mexico. These clinics were designed to examine potential health care solutions for impoverished nations. Jones was also a charter member for the Physicians for Human Rights, which won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. As she got older, she became less involved in teaching and practicing medicine. She died on July 15, 2019, after 92 years of service and education in the South.

Jones appeared in a March 10, 2008, episode of TheHistoryMakers, where she discussed her career as a physician, and the awards she received for her contributions to the medical field and the American Civil Rights Movement. TheHistoryMakers also interviewed her on May 10, 2010.

Research and information by AFMC's Cathy Bain.

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