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Remembering Helen Nash, MD – Pioneering African-American Physician

Helen E. Nash challenged the racial status quo in St. Louis when she became the first African-American doctor to join the staff of St. Louis Children’s Hospital in 1949.

A native of Atlanta and a graduate of Spelman College, Nash graduated from Meharry Medical College in Nashville in 1945.

Internships and residency opportunities were limited for non-white medical school graduates at that time. One of the few hospitals nationwide and the only hospital in St. Louis available to African-Americans for post-graduate medical training was Homer G. Phillips Hospital. St. Louis’s healthcare system was strictly segregated in the early 20th century. The City of St. Louis operated two hospitals for its citizens, one – the St. Louis City Hospital – was only for white patients and staffed exclusively by white doctors. The other was Homer G. Phillips Hospital which opened in 1937 to provide segregated medical care to the African-American community.

Nash began a rotating internship there in 1945, working on twelve services in one year. A three-year residency in pediatrics followed.

In 1949 the first four African-American physicians were invited to join the staff of the Washington University School of Medicine, Nash was the only women among them. As a pediatrician, she became a member of the house staff of St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

Helen E. Nash, MD with a patient, circa 1990.

Helen E. Nash, MD with a patient, circa 1990.













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 – all the while maintaining a vibrant private practice. She was Supervisor and Associate Director of Pediatrics at Homer G. Phillips Hospital from 1950 to 1964 and served as President of the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Attending Staff from 1977 to 1979. At Children’s Hospital she led the development of the first specialized wards for premature infants. 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.

In 1993 Nash retired as Professor Emeritus (Clinical) of Pediatrics. After her retirement, Nash continued working to improve the medical school as Dean of Minority Affairs from 1994 to 1996.

The Washington University School of Medicine recognized her lifetime contributions by creating the Dr. Helen E. Nash Academic Achievement Award. Beginning in 1996 the award has been given every year to a student who exhibits outstanding qualities of perseverance, determination and enthusiasm.

Nash died on Oct. 4, 2012 at the age of 91.

You can learn more about Dr. Nash’s personal experiences by listening to or reading her oral history.

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