BY Stephen Nartey, 3:30pm February 09, 2023,

Inspired by her sister’s death, Edith Jones made history at University of Arkansas School of Medicine and saved lives

Edith Irby Jones/Photo via Texas medical center

Out of the many obstacles she faced in life, none ignited her ambition like the death of her sister. She believed strongly that if her sister had regular access to a doctor, she and other family members would not have lost their lives to typhoid.

Edith Irby Jones, the first Black student to attend the University of Arkansas School of Medicine, was paralyzed when she was five years old. The illness denied her the ability to use her legs for 18 months. She lost her dad in an accident when she was eight.

When she started the School of Medicine, the acts of racial abuse cast at her did not dissuade her from her dreams, according to Changing the Face of Medicine. She was prohibited from using the same dining, bathroom and lodging as her colleagues but she was undaunted in all of this. She had faced and experienced much tougher conditions in life than what was thrown at her.

As a daughter of a sharecropper and domestic worker, she was used to being denied equal access to many opportunities. She had the black community and her family behind her the day her story at the Arkansas School of Medicine made it in the news headlines, so nothing could get her to back down on her journey to becoming the first African-American woman to graduate from the School.

When it was time to enroll in college, a high school teacher assisted her to get a scholarship to Knoxville College in Tennessee. Her medical school education was funded by the African Americans in Little Rock and the local community in Arkansas.

Her tuition was footed by her high school alumni and her living expenses were taken care of by the Arkansas State Press, a black newspaper. The medical school’s custodial staff even lent her some form of support by providing her with fresh flowers every day in the face of the racial discrimination she faced.

In appreciation, Jones was instrumental in helping the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to recruit its members even in the thick of the night. But, in those dark moments, the strongest pillar in medical school was her husband, Professor James B. Jones, whom she dated and married while in school.

She spent six years of her professional career in her home region of Hot Springs, Arkansas when she completed medical school in 1952. Due to the racial sentiments at the time, she and her husband relocated to Houston in the ensuing years. They had two children. She did her residency in internal medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine Affiliated Hospitals. Though the school was accommodative, the hospital she was posted to racially discriminated against her by limiting her patient rosters. She finished the remaining months of her residency at the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.

She established her own private facility in Houston in 1962, which is still functional today. Jones dedicated herself selflessly to improving the lives of the poor and her community. She was made the president of the National Medical Association in 1985. The association was established for Black doctors who were barred from joining the American Medical Association.

She was instrumental in the setting of a medical center in Haiti in 1991. Authorities in Houston set aside a day — “Edith Irby Jones Day” — to commemorate her in 1986. She was recognized as the American Society of Medicine Internist of the Year in 1988. The ambulatory center at the former Southeast Memorial Hospital was named in her honor in 1998.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: February 9, 2023


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