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Women’s History Month: A Profile of Dr. Helen Elizabeth Nash

After Helen Elizabeth Nash graduated from Spelman College, she told her family that she wanted to become a doctor. Her father, Dr. Homer Nash, didn’t think that his third child had the physical stamina to get through medical school. Young Helen was only 5’1” and weighed just under 100 pounds. But Helen’s grandfather, wealthy Atlanta real estate broker Antoine Graves, told the family to “sell a house and send her” to Meharry Medical School.

In 1945, Helen Nash graduated with honors from Meharry, a historically black medical school in Nashville. She was one of four women in her graduating class. She completed her internship at Homer G. Phillips Hospital, a segregated hospital and the only hospital in St. Louis that hired Black physicians. Dr. Nash started a three-year pediatrics residency at the same hospital.

A family tragedy shaped Dr. Nash’s decision to go into pediatrics. Her firstborn sibling, a sister, died just a few months shy of her second birthday from gastroenteritis. This illness caused severe diarrhea and dehydration. In the early 20th century, diarrhea-related dehydration was a leading cause of death for children in the U.S. Inexpensive rehydration therapies would not be perfected until the 1930s.

Already the chief resident, Dr. Nash accepted a staff position at Homer G. Phillips. She helped reduce the premature infant death rate—a staggering 80 percent—through infection protocol procedures and improvements in equipment. Dr. Nash insisted that her patients receive the same treatment as the children at the local white hospital. That meant potassium-rich bananas for snacks, and electric fans and ice cream in hot weather. She continued to advocate for her patients, even when faced with sexist behaviors from her male colleagues.

Dr. Nash started a private practice in 1949. Despite unsolicited comments that a woman doctor would not be able to pull in patients, her practice flourished. Her reputation as a sincere and caring doctor endeared her to many. When a patient died, she grieved with the families, sent flowers, and attended funerals. She spoke frankly about sexuality with her teen patients, discussing responsibility, basic anatomy, birth control options, and parenting skills.

In 1949, Dr. Nash became the first Black pediatrician to join the attending staff at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. She was the first Black woman to become president of the medical staff in 1977. She joined the Washington University School of Medicine, the only woman among the first four African-American physicians hired. 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.

Through her practice, Dr. Helen Nash cared for three generations of children in St. Louis. She died on October 4, 2012, at the age of 91. Her remains came to rest at Oakland Cemetery. Her grave marker is on the western side of the Graves Mausoleum, which houses her mother and maternal grandparents.

Discover more incredible women buried in the African American Burial Grounds by taking our new digital tour, “We Shall Overcome: African American Stories at Oakland Cemetery.” This free tour is made possible through a partnership with the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship.

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