Helen L. Bruce (1907 - 1994)

Helen L. Bruce
Helen L. Bruce, 1977 (Photo courtesy of the Bruce family)

Helen L. Bruce was born in Le Center, Minnesota in 1907. She earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota and her medical degree from the university’s Medical School in 1931. Bruce was the first woman to be offered a fellowship by the Mayo Clinic and the first to turn it down, because the stipend was too low ($65 a month). Instead she accepted a job as director of student health at the University of Illinois, where she met and married her husband, Thor W. Bruce. She moved to the St. Louis area in 1939, joining the St. Louis Health Department in 1947 as a clinical pediatrician. While working for the Health Department, Bruce organized the city’s school health program and became its medical director in 1960. In 1970, she was named assistant health commissioner with the special responsibility for control of communicable diseases. Two years later Dr. Bruce was appointed health commissioner, becoming the first woman to hold that position. The administrative duties of the health commissioner included overseeing the city’s environmental sanitation, public health laboratory, communicable disease control, dental health, public health nursing service, maternal and child-care, and community pediatrics.

Helen L. Bruce and local TV reporter
In her role as health commissioner for the City of St. Louis, Dr. Bruce was frequently interviewed by the local media. (Photo courtesy of the Bruce family)

Dr. Bruce retired as health commissioner in April 1977 when she reached the city’s mandatory retirement age of 70. However, she continued on with the Health Department on a part-time administrative basis when the City of St. Louis could not find a replacement health commissioner, largely due to the city’s $25,000 salary ceiling. Bruce remained interim director of the Health Department until November 1981, when the City of St. Louis finally lifted the salary ceiling to $49,000 and a replacement could be found.

Among her awards and honors, Bruce received the St. Louis Medical Society’s Honor Award in 1976 and the 1979 Health Care Leadership Award from the Hospital Association of Metropolitan St. Louis. She was among the St. Louis Globe-Democrat’s Women of Achievement for 1976 for her contributions in health.