Dr. Edith Irby Jones, a nationally known medical pioneer from Arkansas who established a Third Ward Medical practice, died July 15 at age 91. She is being remembered as a dedicated physician who cared about her patients and her community.
As a trailblazer, she was the first Black student to attend the University of Arkansas School of Medicine, the first Black woman resident at Baylor College of Medicine and the first woman president of the National Medical Association (NMA).
Dr. William Lawson, pastor emeritus of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, knew Dr. Jones for more than 50 years.
“It is important that she be remembered as a person who was not just a doctor, but a person who made many personal contributions to the lives of her patients and to people who were not her patients,” he said. “I first met her husband [the late Dr. James B. Jones] when he was dean of students at Texas Southern University and I met Edith through him.
“The most important thing that can be said about her is that she always maintained her sense of citizenship in the African-American community and she always maintained her faith. She was a staunch member of Antioch Baptist Church,” Lawson said. “And she was a constant contributor to education and was always available for schools. Her passing turns a page in history in Houston.”
Dr. Wanda Mott, a Houston obstetrician and gynecologist, knew Dr. Jones for more than 25 years and admired her pioneering efforts in medical school and beyond.
“Dr. Jones went on to open a practice in the inner city whereas many people are more interested in their economic growth,” Mott said. “She was much more focused on giving back to the community and she often spoke to students about their commitment to the care of others.”
Mott said Dr. Jones’ commitment made her a pillar of the community.
“She took an interest in her patients and the people who she worked with, and she gave of herself on a regular basis.”
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee said Dr. Jones understood how health care could transform the lives of the less fortunate.
“She was a civic leader, always one to render aid, give advice and counsel,” Jackson Lee said. “In a world dominated by men, she made her mark as a role model for women throughout our community and the nation. And, long before the Affordable Care Act would transform and facilitate access to affordable quality medical care, Dr. Jones was there, opening her doors to those who needed access to medical care.”
Jackson Lee added that Dr. Jones did not let age slow her down.
“Well into her later years, Dr. Jones continued to work, because she recognized the importance of her mission – to help those in need any way she could. I will remember her for all these reasons, but also for her joy. Dr. Jones was always full of joy and had a love of life, which was infectious.”
Dr. Jones was born near Conway, Ark. in 1927 and was the daughter of a sharecropper and domestic worker. As a child, she couldn’t walk for 18 months due to illness. Her father died in an accident when she was 8 and she lost a sister and other family members to typhoid.
“I was inspired to become a doctor with the death of my sister,” she recalled. “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 money adequately – which may not be true – that this physician would have come to us more frequently and that she would not have died.”
She pursued higher education with the help of others. A high school teacher helped her obtain a scholarship to historically Black Knoxville College in Knoxville, Tenn. African-Americans in Little Rock and across Arkansas contributed to her medical school fund, high school alumni helped pay for her tuition and a Black newspaper, the Arkansas State Press, paid for her living expenses.
Her enrollment in a white Southern medical school made national headlines yet she still encountered segregation. She was not allowed to use the same dining, lodging or bathroom facilities as other students. While in medical school she met and married her husband.
After receiving her M.D. in 1952, Dr. Jones practiced in Hot Springs, Ark. before moving to Houston for her residency at Baylor. She remained segregated with limited patient rosters and finished her training at Freedman’s Hospital (now Howard University Hospital) in Washington, D.C. In 1962, she set up a private practice in Houston.
In addition to her election as NMA president in 1985, she was active in the American Medical Women’s Association and Planned Parenthood and sponsored the establishment of a medical clinic in Haiti. She was a member of Delta Sigma Sorority, Inc.
Dr. Jones’ survivors include three children, Myra, Keith and Gary. Funeral services are pending.