March 9, 2018

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Women’s History Month: Lena Edwards promoted natural childbirth

John F. FinkI could have written about Lena Edwards Madison either last month during National Black History Month or this month for National Women’s History Month. I chose this month because I had other African-Americans I wanted you to know about last month.

Two weeks ago, when I wrote about Norman Francis, I said that he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the country’s highest civilian honor. So did Lena Edwards, from President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Lena Edwards was a medical doctor, an obstetrician. She became renowned as a public speaker on public health, and as an advocate of natural childbirth. She spoke frequently against both abortion and sterilization, before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

She was born in 1900 in Washington, D.C., the daughter of a dentist and oral surgeon named Thomas Edwards. Her mother was a homemaker. She was valedictorian of her high school class in 1917, and then entered Howard University in Washington. She completed her undergraduate work and then graduated from Howard University Medical School in 1924.

She must have been a popular student because she was elected president of the Howard University chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority while she was there.

She also met Keith Madison, a fellow student in the medical school, and they married after their graduations. They had six children together between 1925 and 1939. However, she and Madison separated in 1947.

After their graduation from medical school, they moved to Jersey City, N.J., and entered separate medical practices. Lena served the European immigrant community and the poor. After six years, she joined the staff of Margaret Hague Hospital in Jersey City, but because of her race and gender, was not admitted to residency in obstetrics and gynecology there until 1945.

She moved back to Washington in 1954 and taught obstetrics at Howard University Medical School. She continued her advocacy for natural childbirth, but she refused to accept an offer to chair the obstetrics department because of her objections to teaching methods of abortion.

She was medical adviser to the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the chair of the Maternal Welfare Committee of the Urban League in the District of Columbia.

In 1961, Edwards had another change. She left Howard University Medical School and moved to Texas where she helped found Our Lady of Guadalupe Maternity Clinic in Hereford. It was during this time that she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She worked at this mission for Mexican migrant workers until she suffered a heart attack in 1965. She returned to Washington where she worked at the Office of Economic Opportunity and Project Head Start. She retired in 1970.

While rearing her children and serving in all these capacities, Lena Edwards was also a devout Catholic, attending Mass every day. She had a great devotion to St. Francis of Assisi and the virtue of poverty. She became a secular Franciscan, and in 1967 was awarded the Poverello Medal for exemplifying the ideals of the founder of the Franciscans.

Lena Edwards died in 1986, at age 86, in Lakewood, N.J. †

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