This public health lecture series is named in honor of the historic Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis, the premier training ground for African American medical professionals. Although it closed its doors on August 17, 1979, we can learn much from the hospital’s history, presented by the very people who worked diligently to provide culturally sensitive care to the patients who so deeply trusted and loved them. Due to the pandemic, this year’s lecture will be virtual.
Candace O’Connor is an award-winning, freelance writer and editor. She specializes in historical and medical writing and is the author of 13 books on Midwest history. For more than three decades, her magazine and newspaper stories have appeared in local and national publications. Her recent book projects include: A Legacy of Caring: The History of Barnes-Jewish Hospital (2017); Renaissance: A History of the Central West End (2017); histories of the departments of neurology, surgery, and radiology at the Washington University School of Medicine (WUSM); a history of St. Louis Children’s Hospital called Hope and Healing: St. Louis Children’s Hospital, The First 125 Years (2006); a history of Washington University in St. Louis titled Beginning a Great Work: Washington University, 1853-2003 (2004); and A Song of Faith and Hope: The Life of Frankie Muse Freeman (2003).
In 2021, she completed a new book project, Climbing the Ladder, Chasing the Dream: The History of Homer G. Phillips Hospital (University of Missouri Press, 2021), which traces the history of the only public African-American hospital in St. Louis. Using the voices of former nurses and physicians, along with in-depth research, she describes the life of the hospital known as “Homer G.,” which opened in a gala 1937 dedication and closed amid bitter controversy in 1979.
Currently, she is starting work on two new books: a history of the WUSM Department of Pathology; and a history of Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis. Other recent projects include a history of lake where she and her husband have vacationed: A Gem of the Adirondacks, Garnet Lake.
She grew up in Rochester, New York and graduated from Cornell University. Today, in her volunteer time, she enjoys tutoring young students and working with newly released ex-offenders. She and her husband, a retired dean from Washington University, live in St. Louis. They have two daughters and four grandchildren.
Honoree: Helen Nash, MD
Helen Elizabeth Nash broke down racial barriers when she became the first African-American doctor to join the staff of St. Louis Children’s Hospital in 1949. She was born in Atlanta, the third of six children. A 1942 graduate of Spelman College with high honors, Nash graduated from Meharry Medical College in Nashville in 1945. Her father, who received his medical degree from Meharry in 1910, was initially resistant to his daughter studying medicine. However, once Helen made the honor roll her first semester, he accepted and supported her career choice. Despite harsh discrimination against black Americans and women in medicine, she was determined to become a physician, and her upbringing and education had given her the self-confidence she would need to succeed.
Internships and residency opportunities were limited for non-white medical school graduates at that time. Homer G. Philips Hospital, opened in 1937 as a segregated hospital, was the only hospital in St. Louis offering learning opportunities and clinical experience to African-American doctors. Nash began a rotating internship there in 1945, working on twelve services in one year. A three-year residency in pediatrics followed. In 1949 she was the only woman among the first four African-American physicians invited to join the staff of the Washington University School of Medicine. As a pediatrician, Nash became a member of the house staff of St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Nash served for over 40 years on the clinical faculty of Washington University School of Medicine and on the attending staff at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. At the same time, she maintained a thriving private practice. In addition, she served as pediatric supervisor and associate director of Pediatrics at Homer G. Phillips Hospital from 1950 to 1964. Nash served as president of the St. Louis Children’s Hospital attending staff from 1977 to 1979. Nash was long recognized in the St. Louis community for her commitment to excellence, tireless advocacy on behalf of children, and endless enthusiasm for the field of medicine. Nash is best known for her work as an advocate for children. By visiting “preemie” units in other hospitals around the country, she developed a designated ward for premature infants that was cleaner and included air conditioning and individual bassinets, and provided improved training for nursing staff.
In 1993 Nash retired as professor emeritus (clinical) of Pediatrics. After her retirement, Nash served as the medical school’s dean of Minority Affairs from 1994 to 1996. Since 1996, the Washington University School of Medicine has bestowed the Dr. Helen E. Nash Academic Achievement Award to a student who has exhibited to an unusual degree the qualities of industry, perseverance, determination, and enthusiasm. She has also worked actively with the Health and Welfare Council of Metropolitan St. Louis and was a fellow of the Academy of Science of St. Louis. She was a trustee of Spelman College, the St. Louis Symphony and of the Missouri Botanical Gardens. In 1992, she also received two honorary degrees: a doctor of humane letters from Webster University, and a doctor of humane letters from the University of Missouri in St. Louis.
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