Dr. Lena Edwards was one of the first African American women to be board-certified as an obstetrician-gynecologist as well as to gain admission to the International College of Surgeons. Throughout her career she served the poor, lobbying for better health care for anyone who needed it, regardless of what they could afford.
Lena Frances Edwards was born in 1900, on the feast of St. Francis, to a prosperous family in Washington, D.C.’s African American community. Her father was a dentist and oral surgeon and her mother a devout Catholic devoted to raising their four children. They instilled in her civic responsibility, personal self-worth, and what she called a “Lift as you climb” philosophy.
After graduating high school at the top of her class, she chose to attend Howard University instead of Brown University because, as she later observed, “I knew who I was and was proud of it…I didn’t want to go to one of those schools and come back brainwashed.” Completing her undergraduate degree in three years, she entered Howard University College of Medicine in 1921. On her graduation in 1924, she and fellow medical student Keith Madison were married. Both completed their internships at the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., and moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, to establish their respective practices.
Between 1925 and 1939, while running her practice, she bore and raised six children. She also spoke on public health and related social issues at local churches and the Young Women’s Christian Association and helped organize the People’s Charitable League, along with its daycare center, for which she provided routine medical visits.
During her early years in practice, Dr. Edwards delivered most of her patients’ babies in her home clinic. But her career changed when she was granted admitting privileges to the new Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital in Jersey City in 1931. Though her gender and race seemed to hamper her advancement, her drive and refusal to be kept back caused friction between her the hospital’s administrators. She recalled one instance when a ranking physician provided inadequate care to a needy patient. Perceiving a difference between “poor man’s treatment versus rich man’s treatment,” Edwards resolved to secure a residency at the hospital so she would never have to see patients submit to a lower standard. In 1945 she finally gained her residency at the Hague. When she decided to sit for the National Board examinations in obstetrics and gynecology, she again had to struggle for the necessary hospital endorsements. And her efforts were not always recognized with the same privileges her colleagues received.
She decided to move back to Washington, D.C., to teach at her alma mater, where she worked on behalf of the poor through the Urban League, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, the Social Work Advisory Committee, and the Catholic International Council. She also served on the boards of a home for unwed mothers and a local maternal welfare organization.
In 1959, Dr. Lena Edwards could look back on a career as a practitioner and teacher of obstetrics and gynecology. By this time she had raised six children, all of whom had chosen professions and positions of service. She had taken vows in the lay Franciscan Order in the late 1940s, but, worried that her age and a heart condition she developed as a teenager would prevent her from completing the medical mission, she decided to move to Hereford, Texas, to serve a community of migrant workers who had been living in an old military barracks. She helped set up a fifteen-bed maternity hospital with donated materials and funds and, using her board certification to get her patients admitted to the local hospital when necessary, reduced infant mortality dramatically. Her efforts earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, the U. S. government’s highest peacetime honor, capping a lifetime of service and struggle for those in need.
Dr. Edwards’s mission ended after a heart attack forced her to return to New Jersey in 1966. During her lengthy “retirement,” she began working with organizations to detect and prevent uterine cancer, provided free medical care to low-income seniors, and worked to humanize medicine. In a series of interviews and public talks, she continued to lobby against abortion and social welfare, which she felt demeaned and debilitated the poor. Edwards’s remarkable resolve to help those in need continued until her death in Lakewood, New Jersey, in 1986.