JCC: This is June Christian for the American Lives American Culture Studies interview
with Dr. Helen Nash. Could you please state and spell your name?
My name is Dr. Helen Nash. H-E-L-E-N N-A-S-H.
JCC: Dr. Nash, could you please describe your growing up? Where you grew up and
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and I went to the private school system that was
run by Atlanta University. And then I graduated from that and went to Spelman
College in Atlanta, Georgia. And to which I came to, went to Nashville,
Tennessee to Meharry Medical College. And then, when I finished med school, I
came here to intern at Homer Phillips Hospital, because all internships were
segregated and prejudiced. And one of the best ones was the one here at old
Homer Phillips Hospital in St. Louis, which is in north St. Louis.
JCC: That’s what I going to ask you about Homer Phillips. What did you do after you
For the internship, and I stayed there for residency. Then Dr. Park White, who
was one of the supervisors of the pediatric unit, asked me to stay on and teach
pediatrics at Homer Phillips, which I did.
JCC: How long did you teach pediatrics at Homer Phillips?
JCC: Oh, you are? Homer Phillips has since closed down, is that right?
JCC: So where do you teach pediatrics now?
Nowhere now. I’m too old to teach for anybody, anything.
HCC: Okay. How did you come about teaching at Washington University Medical
I was here in town and they were appointing people and I was the only black
person doing pediatrics. And I was already at Homer Phillips and Washington
University was supervising the pediatrics there, and so I got the appointment.
JCC: Okay. How long did you teach at Washington University Medical School?
JCC: Okay. And how long were you at Homer Phillips?
JCC: Okay. Could you describe your experiences at Washington University? What
It was absolute prejudice of the highest order.
JCC: What types of things did you experience when you were there?
I just can’t believe that you don’t know any of this.
JCC: This is specifically for the class.
JCC: This is for the class. We’re getting down your experiences so that we would have
You are the fourth student to do this, and it should be there. I asked one guy, I
told him to look it up and he looked it up. Anyway, what was that question?
JCC: What did you experience, what type of experience—
Absolute prejudice. If you don’t know what prejudice is I’ll explain; everything
you did you had to prove you could do it because you were black. Absolute
JCC: Is there a specific instance or a specific time that you can recall that you
The whole time. It was all built on prejudice—segregation and prejudice. Have
Have you read that section in there on me?
Then you haven’t seen this book…what page… go ahead and ask me some
JCC: Okay. Why did you choose to pursue medicine? What made you attracted to
JCC: Was the reason that you went to Meharry because that was—
Because it was very hard to get in anywhere white. And Meharry, I knew I could
get in. One, because I was coming from Spelman College, and two, my father
had gone to school there. He was also a doctor.
About medicine. About any school where people, black people, had to go to
school. You don’t know anything about prejudice?
JCC: Yes, ma’am, I do. I’m asking specifically so that we can record your thoughts
and your feelings on your process through living through a segregated time, so
JCC: Okay. Were you involved in any of the activities, any of the community
I was busy doing an internship and teaching medical students at Homer Phillips
Hospital. No, I wasn’t doing anything else like that.
JCC: Okay. What was your experience like at Spelman College?
Spelman College is a women’s college for black women. And I didn’t have any
trouble there. I went there on scholarships because I was, I guess I was smart, and
you know…no one believed that I could go to med school. They thought women
would not be able to go to med school. That was what was the way they thought
about women. But I got accepted right away because my father had been there,
you know. And when I was gone, my grandfather was—owned a lot of real
estate. He was real estate dealer in Atlanta. And my father was saying we don’t
have the money to send her. And he said—I went to see him the day before he
died, and he asked my mother, “Which on is that?” and she told him it was me.
“Is that one that want to go into medicine?” He said, “Well, sell a house and send
her.” So they did that. She sold a house and that was my tuition for the four
years. Not the house, a house. He had many houses. We used to have a joke, my
sisters and brothers and I, and when we drove around Atlanta, if it was painted
three shades of brown we would look and say, “That’s Papa’s house,” because he
painted them all alike. And I left there and went to med—left Spelman and went
JCC: I went to Tennessee State University for my masters. Was the experience
different in Nashville and Atlanta than it was in St. Louis?
Well, you know it was all prejudiced and segregated. So no, it wasn’t much
difference. Have you been—do you know where Homer Phillips is?
Well, the internship was at old Homer Phillips Hospital, which is now, I think it’s
a senior citizen residence. It’s a big thing. And they used to take almost black
interns from all over the country, because you couldn’t get an internship
You don’t know anything about segregation.
JCC: All I know is what I’ve read in the books. That’s all that I know. I don’t have
I know you don’t have any first-hand knowledge, but if you have read—you don’t
know how prejudiced things were? You don’t know how segregated things were?
Just that. It applied to everyone. Could not get in anything anywhere if you were
black, and they weren’t taking black people.
Homer Phillips was the—all the black interns in the United States used to come to
Homer Phillips because you could get a good internship. There were a few
hospitals, one in Chicago and Harlem Hospital in New York that took black
interns, but they couldn’t take them in numbers that Homer Phillips could take
them. You need to drive over there and look at it. It’s amazing. It’s a big,
beautiful building. It has a central section and wings that go off each end and it’s
five or six stories tall. Everybody wanted an internship there. They used to go to
Provident Hospital in Chicago and to Harlem Hospital in New York.
JCC: So you saw many patients that were not just from St. Louis but from surrounding
Homer Phillips was a city hospital and only St. Louis people could go to the city
You don’t know anything about segregation?
JCC: Yes, ma’am. I’ve read about it. Yes, I’m just trying to get your experiences and
your thoughts on what was happening at that time. When you were teaching,
I came to intern, and I met Dr. Park White. And I stayed and taught pediatrics at
JCC: Okay. And then you went to Washington University’s Medical School? No?
You’re naïve. What, do you think Wash U is going to let black people in? You
don’t know anything about segregation.
JCC: Yes, ma’am. I’ve read. So, how did you come to teach at Washington University
I didn’t come to teach. I taught at Homer Phillips.
I didn’t practice at first until I finished my term at Homer Phillips. I opened an
office here and then practiced pediatrics. Now I got through Dr. Park White, you
need to read that book, an appointment on the faculty at Wash U. That’s when I
taught. They sent white interns and white medical students to Homer Phillips,
and they rotated through pediatrics. I taught them.
JCC: What was that experience like, having the students from Wash U rotate?
It was just that was the group, a group of students every so many weeks came.
And the visiting professors came, all those who were ashamed of segregation. I
can’t believe you don’t know any of this.
JCC: I don’t know exactly how segregation worked—
You don’t seem to understand segregation at all. You don’t?
JCC: No, I do. I do understand that things were separate. I’m unsure of how it worked
from person to person. In the books that I’ve read, they talk about it; they talk
about segregation as it affected whole groups of people, as it affected black folks.
But they never talk about specific individuals. So I wanted to get an idea of your
experiences as an individual teaching in the medical profession and, how that
JCC: How were the white med students when they were coming through…
Didn’t any white med students come through. They came to Wash U. They
didn’t come to Homer Phillips. Homer Phillips was a city hospital for black
JCC: So there weren’t any rotations of Wash U students that came through Homer
JCC: Okay. So when did you go to Washington University Medical School?
I didn’t go to that medical school. I started practicing and I got a faculty
To teach at Wash U? I don’t remember the exact dates. It’s in that book. It’s all
JCC: What were your experiences like when you were teaching students at Wash U.
JCC: You were appointed to the faculty at Wash U Medical School?
Yes, but it was to teach at Homer Phillips.
JCC: Okay. So, what students did you teach when you were at Homer Phillips.
The residents and interns that came from med schools every year. And, if they
wanted to do pediatrics, they’d do a general internship at the hospital. And then,
those that wanted to do pediatrics would do pediatrics on the pediatric floor.
JCC: Okay. And those were black students, or they were white students?
Why would they be anything? They had this big unit out here for white students.
Why would white students come to a black hospital?
Well, Homer Phillips was a city hospital for black people.
Homer Phillips was a black lawyer here in St. Louis who was fighting because
black doctors didn’t have any decent place to get trained—medical training. And
he was killed one morning; he was standing on the corner right near where Homer
Phillips is now. Somebody shot him and killed him. And so when the city finally
decided to build that hospital, they named it for him.
Other than that, it had just been an old decrepit building further downtown. I
think it’s a seven-story building, and it had six or seven wings. Each wing had a
floor. Each service had a floor. You had medicine, male surgery, female surgery,
pediatrics, OB/GYN. I ran the newborn nursery. It’s a big hospital. I’m
surprised you haven’t been over there and seen it? How long have you been here?
And you haven’t driven over there and looked at it?
Well, you should have been over there and looked at it. It’s part of your
JCC: Did you have any interactions with Washington University at Homer Phillips?
The unprejudiced visiting pediatricians would come down and make rounds at
And the surgeons. The surgeons did the same. Medical doctors did the same.
So that you got to seen them all, but it was at Homer Phillips.
You have to go see the hospital to understand. It was a big hospital. It was six or
seven stories tall with—one, two, three—three or four wings on each side of it, a
central building. Had its own X-ray department, everything. It was amazing that
they built it, but it was because the black city hospital was a dump and they had
closed it, and torn it down for something else. It was further downtown. And
they closed it and they built this. And they trained nurses and they trained interns
Have you lived in Kansas City all of your life?
JCC: I lived in Kansas City and then moved to Nashville, Tennessee.
JCC: I knew Meharry was the premier medical and school of dentistry for blacks. It
educated quite a few blacks, specifically during segregated times. But TSU was a
historically black college as well, which is where I got my Masters. What were
your interactions like with the visiting doctors and surgeons from Washington
The only ones you had interactions with were the ones who believed in the
education of black people, and they came down to Homer Phillips.
Okay. And they were—the best one was the pediatrician that I had interactions
with was Dr. Park White. He’s in that book.
Truly. Not only was he a good teacher, he had no prejudices. He wasn’t
prejudiced. So he could afford—he could get himself to Homer—only the people
who came down to Homer Phillips from Wash U were the people who were
relatively unprejudiced. And you lived in Kansas City all your life?
Homer Phillips didn’t close for years after I left. When I left I had a faculty
appointment at Wash U, and I opened an office and started practicing pediatrics.
JCC: Okay. Your faculty appointment at Wash U, you were actually teaching at Wash
I was teaching at Homer Phillips. You don’t know anything about prejudice. I
can’t believe that you are from Kansas City and don’t know a lot of this. But
JCC: When did you open your own practice?
What year did I start practicing? I started practicing—well, the city was
segregated. And Vandeventer, you may have been on Vandeventer. I had an
office at Vandeventer and Finney because it was the center of the black business
district. The telephone company had a black office and black people worked
there. Everything had some black—had a black office. So I had an office. I got
an office space on Vandeventer—1048A North Vandeventer, wasn’t that right?
All black children. And Dr. Park White would, at first, well he didn’t really do it
then. But he was hammering Wash U to make us faculty members and open
Children’s Hospital. And I still know the first black patient I put in Children’s
Hospital. She’s a lovely young woman now. I think she teaches school—
Madeline Pritchett. I used to make house calls, and I made this house call. You
Okay. I made this house call and when I got to her house, she was a little-bitty
four, four, three or four years old. And she was sitting on a pot having diarrhea
and she had these high fevers. I said to her mother, if she only went to—if I knew
she went to Kinloch, I’d know she had typhoid fever. She said well we go to
Kinloch everyday. Anyway, I ran the blood test through the lab at Homer Phillips
because I wasn’t going to put a mistake in this hospital. And they came back
positive for typhoid fever, and I put her in Children’s Hospital. That was the first
patient I admitted to Children’s Hospital. She is grown and married and lives
here in St. Louis now. Her name is Madeline Pritchett. But her father ran the
movie theater in Kinloch and they used to go with him.
JCC: Was typhoid fever common in the community, in Kinloch?
Typhoid fever was common wherever there was poor sewage, and Kinloch didn’t
JCC: Did you live close to your practice off of Vandeventer?
I lived in the nurses’ home. Homer Phillips had a nurses’ home, and I lived there.
And then when I moved from there. I got an apartment. And eventually I had
JCC: Is there much comparison—how would you compare times now to segregated
There’s no comparison…How would I compare what?
No comparison, because everything before things were desegregated was
separate. It was not equal. Medical students couldn’t go to Wash U.
JCC: What were the types of instruments and the types of medicines that were available
No. At Homer Phillips, the city built Homer Phillips and we had everything. We
JCC: So there weren’t any differences?
No, because it was run by blacks. [Tape break] They didn’t want me to have an
appointment. They didn’t want me to put in black patients. Do you think they
were waiting for me, wanting for me, longing for me? Am I getting through to
JCC: So did that happen with patients that followed her.
That happened with every patient for years. It happens now if you run into the
JCC: So how could you be sure that she was getting, and the children you sent in after
Because I was their doctor and I would go and review their record and look and
see what they were getting. I wrote their orders, so they had to do what I wrote.
JCC: Did you ever encounter from the doctors who came and—
Well when I put this little typhoid in the hospital, I started the medicine. I had
already taken her stools and blood to Homer Phillips and got them cultured and
tested, so I knew she had typhoid. I had her admitted and I wrote the orders for
chloromycetin I think it was. I can’t remember. And one of the ugliest doctors
came and wrote a note on the charts: too bad I had started treating the patient
because now we’d never know what she had.
JCC: So the notes were directed at you, for you to—
JCC: I don’t know, I thought maybe they would have written the wrong thing for—
given the wrong directions for the child.
JCC: And you encountered a lot of that with the Children’s—
A lot that. A lot of that. Just like you encounter it every—you can encounter it
now, you know. It’s more subtle, but it was blatant then, you know.
JCC: And you knew exactly who did it? They didn’t try to disguise themselves.
You know, prejudice was very ugly thing, and the reason that I—you need to look
up Dr. Park White in that book. See where the tab—no, not there…
JCC: What was it like to serve as the Dean of Minority Affairs?
JCC: Yes. It says: “She became president of its staff in 1977 and served as acting Dean
I didn’t know that. It’s just work, medical work, teaching medical students. The
major thing I had to do was be sure that they treating the black kids right and that black
kids were getting—for example, the little black girl I admitted first, my first patient, I had
to be sure she got chloromycetin, because that was the drug for typhoid fever, and be sure
they got it in the right doses, you know.
JCC: How could you know—I mean I’m assuming that the nurses didn’t give her the
I wrote the orders; that’s how I knew. I wrote the orders. I wrote the doses. And
no one would dare, you know, if I wrote for half a brim twice a day, they would never not
do what I had written as an order. No one would do that.
JCC: Okay. So in dealing with the nursing staff, they were white at Children’s.
At Children’s they were white and black.
Equally? No. They had Butler Ward, which was for black children.
I think the doctor who insisted on having a ward for black children before they
really admitted them must have been named Butler. I don’t why is called Butler, but it
JCC: Was it a smaller ward in comparison?
Uh-uh. It was just a wing of the hospital.
JCC: Okay. And so the nursing staff that worked in Butler—
They were just the regular hospital nurses.
JCC: And they were both white and black?
JCC: And you never had any problems with the white nurses?
No. They were all happy to see a black doctor.
Because they had been knowing, they had been seeing black children, and they
had been knowing they had wanted black doctors to come in and see their own patients.
So they were happy… They need to teach a course starting in high school on segregation
JCC: I agree. I completely agree. How did things change over the years as you were at
Well, even this apartment building I couldn’t come buy it years ago. I mean, I
could not rent or buy an apartment in this building. This was for white folk.
JCC: Okay. [Dog Barks] So you oversaw students?
JCC: Did you oversee students at Children’s?
See, when you’re admitted as a private doctor, well what I got when I started
practicing, I opened my office at Vandeventer and Finney. I also got, thanks to Dr. Park
White, you should read him up in there, I got the faculty appointment at Wash U so I
could then teach. When I made rounds on my patients, I would be teaching my patients.
On my patients to the white residents and interns.
JCC: And they were receptive at that time?
Oh, they were lovely. They were happy to see a black doctor coming along.
JCC: How long was it after you were appointed to the faculty at Children’s—
I had to be on the faculty at Wash U to get on the staff at Children’s.
JCC: Okay. You were the first black doctor that was appointed. How long were you
on staff at Children’s after your faculty appointment at Wash U? How long was it after
It wasn’t long. It was like a year, maybe.
Before another black it wasn’t long at all. I don’t remember.
JCC: Did you experience discrimination—
JCC: —in addition to being black, but also being a female doctor?
JCC: Could you distinguish between when you were being—could you discriminate
where the prejudice was coming from, whether it was—
Yes. Direct from the person doing it. [Laughter] Why are you laughing?
Nobody hid anything when prejudice was legal and they were within their rights.
Otherwise, why would another faculty member go up, when I admitted the little girl with
typhoid, why would he go up and write a note on her chart? I didn’t ask him to see her.
But he just felt himself so that he could do that. It didn’t bother me—it made me
annoyed with him—it didn’t bother me because I knew she had typhoid; I had done all
the tests. I wouldn’t have sent her in there if I hadn’t done the tests.
JCC: So how did you keep going in spite of that, in spite of the doctors continuing to
Nobody did it after that because I was never wrong. No one did it after that.
JCC: So, what other things did you experience when you were at Children’s? What
other experiences with discrimination did you have, aside from them writing on the
God, the same everyday things people do now. The same everyday things people
do now. You haven’t experienced anything at Wash U where you knew they didn’t want
JCC: At times I have, but I can’t think that they were in any comparison to the things
Do you answer back? Do you fight it back?
JCC: My mother has a saying, when you have your hand in the lion’s mouth, you work
JCC: So how did you fight back? What types of things did you do to let them know
Well, you’d just answer that appropriately where it was appropriate. You
would—like the guy who says we will never know what Madeline has since the doctor’s
already started the medicine. That’s a real, “Don’t you know, as stupid as you are, you
don’t know that I wouldn’t have sent her in here if I didn’t know what she had?”
He said, “Well, we’ll see.” I had just taken her stool, blood, and everything, and
urine and gotten it run at Homer Phillips, so I knew what she had. And I started with, and
he says, “It’s too bad we’ll never know what she has now because the doctor’s already
started the medicine.” I said, “The doctor wouldn’t have started the medicine if she
hadn’t known what the baby had.” So they learned not to do me. I didn’t get much of
Mm-hmm. They were not glad to see black doctors come on the faculty or come
JCC: Were you among one of the few women that were on staff?
JCC: Okay. So did they ever make comments to you because you were a woman, about
being a woman in addition to being black?
I don’t remember. I was so busy fighting the black stuff, I don’t remember.
Anyone who said anything to me that women doctors do this? No, I don’t remember that.
Some things you have to blot out and go on.
JCC: Where did your determination to speak up come from?
He was a marvelous, marvelous old doctor. He left home—his high school
teacher told him to run away, leave home. So he left home and went to Atlanta where he
lived with the teacher and her sister. They lived in Atlanta. And he said he had the best
hands in his class because he washed dishes for a living. And we knew those women he
lived with all our lives, because they were so happy for him to have gotten out of Athens,
Georgia and gotten to medical school and doing well, you know.
JCC: Was he a pediatrics doctor as well, a pediatrician?
He was a GP, general practitioner. He was particularly good with children
because he had five of his own. One had died from diarrhea, which really upset them,
and they worried about it all their lives… but no others did. And then, just about that
year, Dr. Hartman came out with his Hartman’s solution. All that you use now, Ringer’s
Lactate, all those, they more than had those. They were just being developed.
JCC: So, what were the differences between the time the instruments and the
The instruments were no different. The medication he used was no different. But
what was different for everyone was that Dr. Hartman, who was at Children’s, had
learned how to replace fluid loss in adults and children, and that is what kept people from
dying. You died from dehydration and loss of fluids, loss of electrolytes.
JCC: So was there a difference in the way that he practiced medicine and the way that
—is different as it was because of the time.
Antibiotics, IV fluids. Now they have all sorts of fluids they give you. They can
have the lab make you up a fluid with one CC of 1/6th M Lactate in every ounce if that’s
what they want. But it was like that, you know. That was when we started really being
able to prevent infants from dying with diarrhea, because you could replace the fluid.
The thing that killed infants with diarrhea is the loss of fluid and electrolytes, and you
could put them in as fast as he could pour them out.
JCC: Did your father work in a hospital, or did he do house calls?
My father was a general practitioner. He had a big practice in Atlanta. Have you
JCC: No I haven’t. I’ve driven through it. I’ve never stopped.
Well, it is a big center for black people, and his office was on Auburn, which you
may have heard of, except there wasn’t a pediatric hospital. There was not one that—
well, Edgewood Children’s Hospital was for white children only, but that’s another story.
JCC: So, did all of your brothers and sisters grow up to be doctors as well? I know that
My brother. He’s not my twin. I remember when he was born. We were at my
grandmother’s having breakfast, and they called. The phone rang, and my aunt went to
the phone. They called and said, “The baby’s here. It’s a boy.” And they came back
from the phone and said, “You have a brother,” and my sister and I danced around the
table singing, “We have a brother! We have a brother!” And we went to see my mother.
She had a home delivery, and we went to see her late that evening, and when we—her
bed had curves in it, and the baby was laying in the curve of the bed—and we went in to
see her and she says, “There’s your brother.” Katherine ran up and put her hand on him
and said, “This is my brother,” and I said, “Well, where is mine?” I thought—the reason
I said that was my mother gave at Christmas, she bought four doll beds, you know, there
were three of us, three doll beds, three dolls, never had to share your doll, your doll bed,
whatever. So I said, “Where is mine?” and she said, “That’s everybody’s brother.”
I have an older sister, a younger sister who is in California, she teaches at
JCC: Where do you fall in the birth order?
My oldest sister is dead. She died of cancer of the pancreas. That kills
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