Dr. Justina Ford on Pioneering Healthcare in Emerging Denver: Jasmine Armstrong at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

Good afternoon. I’m Dr Justina Ford, although I’m better known as The Lady Doctor, or The Baby Doctor I was Colorado’s first colored woman physician, and I was the only woman physician of any color in Denver until the 1930s. Generally, it’s a bad idea to be the first black person to do anything. But I chose wisely.

Over my 50-year career here in Denver, I saw this city grow and prosper, and the community enabled me to emerge as the best medical provider I could be. Now, you may be wondering, “Well, she doesn’t look like she has had a 50-year career.” When they call you back from the past, conveniently you get to choose whatever age you like to be. So I am a just-arrived-to-Denver-Justina. I’m sure some of you were born in Colorado, and maybe your parents and grandparents were too. There is a chance that I delivered someone you know into the world.

I wasn’t lucky enough to be born in Colorado. I was born in 1871, so thankfully, I just missed the peculiar institution and the War of the Rebellion. My parents, however, were former slaves. They migrated to Illinois following Emancipation in search of a better life. And it was from following my mom on her rounds through town as a nurse that I knew my purpose in life: medicine.

I had lots of siblings, but I refused to play with any of them unless we played hospital. And I refused to play even that unless I got to be the doctor. I didn’t know the names of any sicknesses, so I would just make things up. I didn’t know the names of any medications, so I had one standard prescription: tobacco pills. I was volunteered to dress chickens for dinner, so I could get in there and see what the insides were like, and if I stumbled upon a dead frog or a lizard on my walks through the woods, you know, I’d open that up too.

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I was kind of an interesting child. When neighbor folks were ill, I remember that I liked to attend to them. Looking back on it, I hope I didn’t do them any harm. I graduated from high school in 1890, and I did quite well in my studies. Shortly after I graduated, my mother introduced me to a charismatic young preacher, the reverent John E Ford from Chicago. After a brief courtship, we were married, and I moved to the big city to be with my husband.

I also was accepted and enrolled in the Hering Medical College. It took me a few years, but I graduated in 1899 with my medical degree, and I accepted an offer as a faculty physician at a small state agricultural college in Alabama. Now, this was my first time in the Deep South, but if you can imagine, at the turn of the 20th century, they were a little uncomfortable with an educated colored woman in a position of authority.

It was quite a shock not at the most progressive place. But luckily, after less than two years, my husband John was called to pastor at the Zion Baptist Church here in Denver, Colorado, and it’s the oldest baptist church in this city. We relocated to Denver in 1902, we moved into the Five Points neighborhood. And when I arrived, I thought, “Denver seems like just the place.” It was still pretty much of a pioneer town when I arrived.

I tell folks that I got to Denver in time to help build Pikes Peak, and it’s almost a truth. I immediately applied for my medical license. Upon providing the two necessary documents – a five-dollar bill and a medical school diploma – the clerk looked at me, and he hesitated. He said, “Ma’am, I feel dishonest taking a fee from you. You’ve got two strikes against you. First off, you’re a lady. Second, you’re colored.”

I smiled, and I was responded, “I know. I thought it all through before I came, this is just the place I want to practice.” And I was assigned the medical license 3800 on August 1, 1902. This was a a momentous occasion. Now, although I was licensed, there were many places I simply was not admitted. And it did make things just that much harder. At the time, local hospitals required you to have a membership in the American Medical Association to have admitting privileges. But to join that body, you first had to join the Colorado Medical Society.

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Well, that body denied my membership on account of my color, therefore barring me from all of the city’s hospitals. I soon realized that my only opportunity was as an independent practitioner. But this was an unexpected opportunity. I quickly became a doctor for all of Denver’s marginalized communities. Mind you, it wasn’t just colored folks who were kept out of the hospitals.

At this time, it was equal opportunity oppression. You know, colored folks, Hispanics, Chinese and Japanese people, even Southern and Eastern Europeans were denied care. Furthermore, in some of these immigrant communities, it was a tradition for a woman to preside over childbirth, preferably at home. Even if you were welcome at the hospitals, they seemed a cold, sterile place where not a lot of good things happened. Now, I guess about 15% of my patients were what I’d call plain-colored, 15% were plain-white, the rest were all the colors in between.

Folks would call, they’d show up for an appointment, and I’d take them in whatever color they showed up. I didn’t really keep track of these things. I tried to learn enough of their native language to communicate medical information and encouragement. Over time, my practice spread throughout the city and even into the Foothills. This made transportation always an issue.

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