medicine STEM

Justina Ford

Dr. Justina Ford was an American physician who become the first female African American physician licensed to practice in Denver, Colorado, challenging and overcoming gender and racial barriers to succeed in her medical career. She practiced gynaecology, obstetrics, and paediatrics from her home for half a century.

Ford was born in 1871 in Knoxville, Illinois. Her mother, Melisia Warren was a nurse and Ford would accompany her mother on her neighbourhood rounds from an early age. Ford knew from an early age that she wanted to become a doctor, and her mother and other family members provided the funds for her to enrol in Chicago’s Hering Medical College, a school for homeopathic medicine.

In 1899, Ford, now married, graduated from Medical College and began practising medicine as a resident physician at the Tuskegee Institute, 40 miles east of Montgomery, Alabama. She then moved on to become a hospital administrator in Normal, Alabama. In 1902, Ford moved to Denver, Colorado, following her husband who had been assigned to the Zion Baptist Church there in 1900. Ford applied for her Colorado medical license, but was turned down due to the fact that she had “ two strikes against you. First of all, you’re a lady, and second, you’re coloured.”

Ford was eventually given her license, but she was denied membership to the Colorado Medical Association, the Denver Medical Society and the American Medical Association. Membership was necessary to practice medicine in hospitals, and as these associations were segregated it was not until desegregation that she would be admitted as a member. Both Ford and many of those who would become her patients, including African Americans, poor people and immigrants among others were barred from hospitals and so she set up her own private practice. Ford had become the only female African American doctor in Denver, and treated a wide range of patients both in her home, and when making house calls. She specialised in gynaecology, obstetrics, and paediatrics and her medical expertise was in great demand. She learned to speak several languages in order to communicate with her patients, and would treat those who could not afford to pay, accepting whatever they could trade in return for their care. Ford would also provide many of her patients with food, blankets, and/or coal and was known affectionately as “The Lady Doctor” by the community she served.

33 years after Ford set up practice in Denver, she was finally invited to join the faculty at Denver General Hospital. In 1950, after applying every year since she was first denied admittance she was finally permitted to join the Colorado and American Medical Associations. Ford delivered around 7,000 babies during her fifty-year career and worked until two weeks before her death in 1952. Four months before her death, she said that “…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.”

In 1985, Ford was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame for her work. Four years later, she was named a “Medical Pioneer of Colorado” by the Colorado Medical Society who called her “an outstanding figure in the development and furtherance of health care in Colorado.” In 1984, Ford’s Arapaho Street house and home office was saved from being demolished and moved to its current location on California Street. It has been converted into the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center where a room is devoted to honouring her life and work. Her legacy also lives on in the Dr. Justina Ford Medical Society, and the Ford-Warren Library. In 1998, a bronze sculpture of Ford holding a baby, created by Jess E. DuBois was erected outside her former house.

Sources here, here, here, here, here and here.

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