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Obituary of Dr. Helen Nash: Pioneering doctor and children's advocate

Dr. Helen Nash
Washington University

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Dr. Helen Nash, the first African-American physician on staff at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, was as well known for her outspoken advocacy on behalf of children as for her practice of medicine. She died Thursday at her home in Creve Coeur. She was 91.

"She was very staunch in her commitment to doing what was right, particularly for underserved children," said Dr. Michael R. Debaun, one of Dr. Nash’s former patients. "She did what was right even when others were bashful or reluctant."

A memorial service for Dr. Nash will be Oct. 27 at All Saints Episcopal Church in St. Louis.

Dr. Nash, who treated thousands of children in her 45 years of practice, became a renowned and respected physician throughout the medical community.

It did not begin that way.

In a 2004 interview for Washington University's "American Lives Project," Dr. Nash recounted her early experiences as a black woman doctor in a white, male-dominated medical world: “lots of ugliness and prejudice.”

"I experienced discrimination of the highest order," she said. "(It) couldn’t have been worse. Nobody hid anything when prejudice was legal and they were within their rights."

Dr. Nash recalled the first black patient she had admitted to Children’s Hospital: a little girl from Kinloch whom she had diagnosed with typhoid fever.

"One of the ugliest doctors came and wrote a note on the charts: 'Too bad (Dr. Nash) started treating the patient, because now we'd never know what she had,’ " Dr. Nash said.

Unparalleled service

Helen Elizabeth Nash, the third of Dr. Homer E. Nash Sr. and Marie Antoinette Graves Nash’s six children, was undaunted.

She took her cues from her father, who had a sprawling general medical practice in her hometown of Atlanta, and from her mother, who told her to demand equal treatment. She even took a cue from opera diva Marian Anderson, who performed only before integrated audiences. Dr. Nash had seen her in concert as a teenager.

Dr. Nash was born on Aug. 8, 1921. She attended Spelman College on scholarships, receiving her bachelor's degree in 1941. Her grandfather sold one of the many houses he owned to pay for her to attend Meharry Medical College in Nashville. She received her medical degree there in 1945. She came to Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis for her internship and pediatric residency.

She joined the staff of Homer G, as the city's hospital for black patients was called. Together, she and her mentor Dr. Park White, helped reduce the premature infant death rate at the hospital by making relatively simple improvements in hygiene and equipment.

Dr. Helen Nash with a patient
Credit Washington University
Dr. Nash with a patient

Dr. Nash opened her medical practice in 1949. That same year, she became the only woman among the first four African-American physicians to join the staff of the Washington University School of Medicine.

"I stayed in St. Louis because I could get a faculty appointment at Washington University and have privileges at St. Louis Children's Hospital," she said in an interview the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1989. ''I didn't want to practice pediatrics second-rate. I wanted to be a part of a mainstream medical community."

But the city was racially segregated.

"I had an office at Vandeventer and Finney because it was the center of the black business district," Dr. Nash said.

Segregated, subpar conditions for black people spurred the feisty Dr. Nash to become an advocate for children, although she had none, unless you count her patients.

"She described the children she cared for as her children," said Dr. Debaun, now a vice chair in the Department of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University.

"I remember my mother calling Dr. Nash in the middle of the night," he continued. "That’s the depth of care she delivered. She was my inspiration for becoming a physician and a pediatrician. When it came to justice for children, particularly black children, she delivered unparalleled service and commitment."

'Super doctor'

Even as segregation faded, blacks continued to flock to Dr. Nash and her younger brother, Dr. Homer Nash, who had followed in his sister's footsteps.

Over the years, Dr. Nash didn't just witness change, she caused it. From the early days at Homer G with White, she worked across racial lines and worked to heal the whole patient.

Despite having "lived segregation" growing up white in a small Virginia town, Elizabeth Nettles, a clinical psychologist, said she got the nod when Dr. Nash was looking for someone who could be trusted to evaluate her patients mentally.

The two began to trade referrals.

"It certainly enriched my life and practice to have many black clients over the years," Nettles said. 

"Helen was the super doctor," Nettles added. "She was part psychiatrist. She always asked about what was going on in the (patient’s) family, what was going on beyond this ache or that pain."

When Dr. Nash retired in 1993 as professor emerita of pediatrics from Washington University, she lamented that she was still fighting many of the same battles, like teen pregnancy, despite years of effort.

She had a specially built room in her offices to teach teenagers about sex. Posters of male and female genitalia hung on the walls so there was no mistaking that it was the "sex room."

In 1992 she wrote: "I tell the teenagers sex is not illegal, immoral or even wrong, but it is careless not to take charge of your body and control your fertility."

From 1994 to 1996, she served as the Washington University Medical School's dean of minority affairs. Each year, since 1996, the Washington University School of Medicine has given a student the Dr. Helen E. Nash academic achievement award.

Dr. Nash's own awards included honorary doctorates from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Webster University in 1992; the Women's Medal of Honor from the NAACP’s Crisis magazine in 1994; the 1996 Lifetime Achievement Award in Healthcare from the St. Louis American Foundation; and the 1996 Spirit of OASIS award. Her most recent honor was the St. Louis Gateway Classic Sports Foundation 2012 Lifetime Achievement and Walk of Fame Award. 

Dr. Nash served on the Missouri Historical Society board of trustees, as chair of the St. Louis Office for Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities and as head of the Reproductive Health Services board.

She built a reputation as an advocate for child welfare, serving as a member of the St. Louis Medical Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Health and Welfare Council of Metropolitan St. Louis.

In 1987, Dr. Nash, who played a little piano, served on the board of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and endowed a guest artist chair. Gardening led to her support of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Psalm of life

"The grave is not the goal, was a line Lauren Nash-Ming said her aunt often quoted from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, "A Psalm of Life." "It means you have to be passionate and fierce about life."

Dr. Nash was the widow of James Abernathy. They were married in 1964; he died in 1980. She was also preceded in death by her parents, a sibling who died in infancy, and two sisters, Catherine Frye and Harriet Chisholm.

Her survivors include her brother, Dr. Homer E. Nash, Jr., of St. Louis and her sister, Dorothy Shack, of Oakland, Calif.; nieces, Cheryl Chisholm, Terrell (Steve) Mann, Karen (Stanley) Reynolds, Sherry Heard, Lauren (Leo) Nash Ming, Dr. Alison (Clarence Dula) Nash and Tracey (David Huntley) Nash-Huntley, and a nephew, Hailu Shack.

A memorial service will be at 2 p.m., Sat., Oct. 27, at All Saints Episcopal Church, 5010 Terry Ave., in St. Louis.

Memorial contributions may be made to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Missouri Botanical Garden or the St. Louis Children's Hospital Foundation.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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