Edith Irby Jones, who was the first black student to matriculate in an all-white medical school in the South when she enrolled in 1948 at what is now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, died July 15 at her home in Houston. She was 91.
Her daughter, Myra Jones Romain, confirmed the death but did not cite a cause.
When she was a young girl in rural Arkansas, she lost a sister to typhoid fever in the 1930s.
“The children who were able to have medical care would live,” Dr. Jones told an interviewer years later. “I saw the doctor going in and out of their homes. Although it may not be true, I felt that if I had been a physician, or if there had been physicians available, or we had adequate money, that a physician would have come to us.”
Amid the tragedy of her sister’s death, and perhaps unaware of the obstacles she would face, she vowed to become a doctor — but a “different kind of doctor,” she said. She would grow up to be a pioneering African American doctor.
“Money wasn’t going to make any difference with me,” Dr. Jones told an oral historian with the University of Arkansas Libraries. “And so I have spent my lifetime trying to live out a childhood dream.”
Dr. Jones spent most of her career in Houston, where she ran an internal medicine practice in the city’s predominantly African American Third Ward and sometimes accepted eggs and vegetables as payment, according to the Houston Chronicle. She became nationally recognized for her efforts to improve medical care for the needy and to open the medical profession to African Americans.
Joycelyn Elders, who under President Bill Clinton became the first black U.S. surgeon general, cited Dr. Jones as an inspiration. Elders had attended a speech that Dr. Jones, then a medical student at the University of Arkansas Medical School, delivered at the historically black college Elders attended in Little Rock.
“You can’t be what you can’t see, and I had never seen a doctor before,” Elders told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1995, reflecting on the encounter. "I believe in role models. I was interested in biology and had thought about being a lab technician. But I had no idea I could be a physician until I saw a black woman doctor.”
Edith Irby — she later took the middle name Mae — was born Dec. 23, 1927, in Mayflower, Ark., and grew up in Hot Springs, Ark. Her father managed to provide a comfortable living for the family as a sharecropper, she said, but he was killed in an accident when she was about 7 years old.
Her sister died shortly thereafter, her brother nearly died of typhoid fever as well, and Dr. Jones came down with a debilitating case of rheumatic fever.
When poor health prevented her mother from working as a domestic, Dr. Jones helped support the family by caring for a doctor’s son for $2.50 a week. The boy’s grandmother encouraged her in her education, Dr. Jones told the Houston Chronicle, and built her confidence.
She credited a high school teacher with helping her obtain a scholarship to attend the historically black Knoxville College in Tennessee, where she studied chemistry, biology, and physics and graduated in 1948.
Dr. Jones learned that she had been accepted to the Arkansas medical school when a reporter from Time magazine, reporting on the landmark event in race relations in the South, called to ask if she would accept the spot. The answer was yes. Dr. Jones said that she paid her tuition in part with contributions — many in the form of nickels and dimes — from friends in Hot Springs.
According to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, there were 6,500 medical students in the United States when Dr. Jones enrolled in 1948. Of those, 185 were black, and most were studying at historically black colleges. The board of trustees voted to increase Dr. Jones’s class size by one — lest anyone complain that she had taken a spot from a white student.
She was subjected to the indignities of Jim Crow, but she recalled that her white classmates often sought to lessen them. They joined her at a segregated dining table at the university and stood with her on buses at a time when blacks were forced to give up their seats to white passengers.
She participated in the civil rights movement while pursuing her studies and graduated in 1952. She practiced medicine in Hot Springs before moving to Houston with her husband, James B. Jones. He died in 1989 after 39 years of marriage.
In addition to her daughter, of Saint Kitts and Nevis in the West Indies, survivors include two other children, Gary Jones and Keith Jones, both of Houston; seven grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.
Dr. Jones was the first female president of the National Medical Association, a professional organization founded for African American health professionals when the American Medical Association was open only to whites. She consulted on health care, particularly for the poor, around the world.