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Transcript: Helen E. Nash, 1999

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My name is Marion Hunt and I’m doing an oral history interview with Dr. Helen Nash in the King Room on April 20, 1999.  We are going to start with a discussion of Dr. Nash’s childhood in Atlanta where she was born August 8, 1921.  And I’d like to ask Dr. Nash something about growing up in Atlanta and where she went to school and her parents.

OK.  Well growing up in Atlanta if your parents were educated or had income was relatively easy for black children.  My father had come back from the World War I and had a successful practice on Auburn Avenue in what is called the Herndon Building.  I can remember going down to visit him.

From what age did you go to the office?  He would take you downtown?

Whenever I was downtown with my mother we’d always stop by the office to get a ride home.

So you knew that he had a successful practice?

I knew that he had a successful practice all my life.  And then at home in the mornings and on weekends when patients called – we lived on the edge of town – and when patients called who lived further out, he would go to make house calls.

Did you ever go with him to make a house call?

We always wanted to go because we wanted to ride and he didn’t want us to go for fear the car would break down, and I can remember the time the car did break down, but it broke down because the battery dropped out.

What did he do then?

Well, he had to carry Harriet and Kathleen [ed. note: Helen Nash’s sisters] and I ran along behind him and he was just walking and fussing at us.

To the next, to the patient’s house?  Or to the gas—

No, we had made it there and were on our way back and so that was reason not to ever go with him again when you went out in the country on a house call.

But you knew that your father was a very successful doctor right from the time you were a little girl because he opened his practice in 1910 on Auburn Avenue, so by the time you were born in 1921 he had been in practice nine years with two years out for the war because he went over to France.

Right.  He was successful.

And you were the second, no the third of six children and your parent’s first child died.

First child died from what – when I came to St. Louis and interviewed [with] Dr. [Alexis F.] Hartmann so I could be on the staff at Children’s Hospital.  He said, “I know where I was the day you were born.  I was up in the lab trying to decide how to stop infants who were having diarrhea from getting dehydrated and into electrolyte imbalance.  He was making—

Hartmann’s Solution.

Hartmann’s Solution.

And did your sister die of—

She died.

Of dehydration?

She died of dehydration.

Of a childhood disease of the kind—


And the death of the oldest child affected your parents deeply, you said.

Yes.  It was for several reasons.  She had been born while my father was in France, in World War I, and my mother had been left a young bride in Atlanta.  She was living with her parents and they did not know at the time the baby was born whether or not he was alive.

So this baby was a lifeline.

She was sort of a lifeline and when he came home of course he brought a lot of things from France.

For the baby?

French lace dresses and stuff like that.  We always thought we would get Nana to take them out and let us see them, these clothes no one ever wore because she died.

And she never took them out?

She was 22 months old.  She would take them out when she wanted to talk about her.

But nobody ever wore those clothes?

Yes, she would take the infant’s pictures in the French lace dress and I think Homer [ed. note: her younger brother] was the last one.

To wear the dress?

To wear the dress.

And so when you were growing up, the whole time you were growing up, you knew there was this little lost sister.

There was this baby they had lost and a baby they had never really got over the death.

Even with five healthy children.

Well, the reason we knew she didn’t get over the death is if you coughed you went to the doctor.  She was afraid you would die.

She was hyper-vigilant.  Very, very vigilant.

Right.  She was very afraid.

So your mother was very protective of you, of all of you.  When you got up to be the age of – and you got through kindergarten and elementary school at Oglethorpe and got ready to go to Spelman, you were already thinking about medical school when you were a teenager?

When I was a teenager I made a career book.  The cover was a picture of a man doing camera work with a hood and the sticks and the tripod sticking out.  A picture of a doctor listening to someone.  And I’ve forgotten what the other – I had three career choices.

But you did become a photographer as well as a doctor.

I became a photographer of sorts.  Right.

And when it came time for medical school your grandfather, Antoine Graves—

Well he was dying.  He had kidney failure and of course he was way up in his, near his 90’s, so it wasn’t an unusual death.  I went to see him the day before he died.  They said, “Come to see Papa, Papa is dying.”  And I went and they were standing around the room.  There were three daughters and he said, “Which one is that?  Is that the one who wants to go to med school?”  And they said yes.  And he said, “Sell a house and send her.”

And that’s how you went?

He was leaving property all over Atlanta.  And they would never think of disobeying Papa.

And so your mother—

Sold the house _____ (?)

And your father was worried about your going because you were so—

I was small and it would be too hard and I was too little, and—

You weighed ninety-two pounds and you were five foot, one [inch] and looked frail.  I’ve seen pictures.  You looked frail in the pictures.

But I was never sick.

No, you were tough even back then.  So you went off to medical school in nineteen thirty—

I finished college in ’42 didn’t I?  Yes.

Graduated from Spelman.  And did you ever know a black woman physician?

Yes.  I was born in one’s hospital.  In fact they had pictures of it in one of the Wash. U. magazines one year.  Her name was Georgia Dwelle and she had a hospital in Atlanta.  And everyone respected her and liked her, but she ran a hospital so that you didn’t have to go to the city hospital to have a baby.

And of course the hospitals were segregated in Atlanta.

Very segregated.

And when did you first become aware of racism, because you had a very protective family, a very prosperous family, but still you must have known, or sensed, something about racism even as a child, do you think?

Yes, I got – the streetcar was stopped in front of Oglethorpe, which was our grade school.  It ran across Atlanta through downtown Atlanta to the black neighborhood on Auburn Avenue.  My grandmother lived on Auburn Avenue.  I don’t know who was sick or why, but Kathleen and Harriet and I were catching the streetcar at Together and riding across town to Auburn Avenue and boulevard.  And my grandmother and her daughter would be there to meet us.  They knew what time we were going to catch the streetcar.  And this time we got off the back and they had a fit.  “What are you doing back there?”  We said, “Oh it’s wonderful!  He let us sit back in the conductor’s seat and he let us drive.”  But what had happened is we had been sitting up on the front talking to him and when we got down to the Union, to the terminal station in Atlanta, there was a stop, a woman got on and she raised a lot of Cain.

A white woman?

A white woman, [upset] about three little black girls sitting up in front and she wanted us arrested.  And he didn’t want to have us arrested so he said, “Wait, let me take care of it.”  And he said, “Wouldn’t you like to sit back here where you can see we have been and you can drive?”  And so back we went.

And you never, I mean you realized something—

We didn’t know what was wrong, but when we told them they had a fit.  And we never got on the streetcar again for years.

That is amazing.

So that was Kathleen, Harriet, and myself.

The three little girls.  So then when you went off to Meharry that would have been in 1942.

I left home in 1942.

And the war was on – World War II was on – and when you got there, how big was your class at Meharry?

Every class had sixty-five students.

And how many women would be in your class?

There were four of us in our class.

So that was a small close-knit [group] where – did the four of you stick together or did you have a special friend?

No we didn’t stick together.  My special friend is the one who died at Christmas time.

What was her name?

She was a sophomore.  Her name was Margaret Williams Ring.

And she was a year ahead of you?

She was a year ahead of me and her father and my father knew each other.  He practiced in Savannah, Georgia.  My father practiced in Atlanta, Georgia

And where did you live?  Did they have dormitories or apartments?

Well you lived, you boarded – the citizens of Nashville made a living boarding medical students because there was no dormitory.  And I lived with my mother’s friends and you know, you couldn’t not go off and just – like you can now come to the city and find yourself a place.

But your parents wanted to make sure—

You could not do that – they’d have to protect you even further by – there was Mrs. So-and-So who was their friend and who knows you and will help take care of you.

So they knew you were safe.

So you would be safe.  I lived with some people on Scovel Street that my mother’s friends had picked out and then my friend whom I started living with at the end of my freshman year was living at our friend’s – Mrs. Johnson’s house – my mother had tried to get a room for me at Mrs. Johnson’s.  She owned the movie theater, the funeral home, and something else.

So your mother’s apron strings were protecting you all the way through medical school.

All the way.  Anyway Margaret and her husband saw me one morning on the way to breakfast and said, “Would you like to live with Margaret next year?”  He was leaving to come out here to do an internship.

So you moved in with Margaret?

And I said, “No I don’t – I have a good room. I don’t need to move.”  And when I got home that night the woman told me her daughter was going to have a baby and they wanted my room.

So you did move!

I had to fly back and catch her before she got someone else.

So Margaret and you roomed together for two years?

Margaret and I roomed together and formed a lifetime friendship.  She had a stroke and died at Christmas time.

But you were her loyal friend all those years.

All those years we were friends – we traveled together, we went around the world together.

And when you were students together, did you feel as black women that you got different treatment than the young men at Meharry?  Did the professors treat you different?

Oh yes, that was no problem.  There was no question and you had to just know your stuff.  You just never [could] be unable to answer a question.  Just study and be able to answer the questions.

And Margaret and you were both good students?

Oh yes, we were.  We were ready, you might say.

They didn’t ever catch you without an answer?

Oh, no, never without an answer.

So when it came time for your internship, how did you decide to come to Homer G. [Homer G. Phillips Hospital]?

Well, everybody came to Homer G.  It was one of the best places [and] they took the largest number of interns and you could be sure of getting a residency.  And I wanted to do pediatrics.

You knew that – had you decided pediatrics while you were in medical school?

Yes, I had.

You just had a feeling that was what you wanted.

That was what I wanted to do and so the major thing was to get accepted here.

And it was very competitive?

My first service was pediatrics and I met Dr. Park White.

Your very first year in St. Louis you met P. J. [Park J. White].


And did you and he hit it off from the start?

We hit it off from the start and he knew I wanted the pediatric residency the next year and I got it.

So he was your mentor really from the time you came.

From the beginning, right.

And you knew that he was a white man with an unusual passion for racial justice at the time?

Right.  Though we used to catch him in what we called prejudices, but they weren’t anything serious.

But when you came to St. Louis it was a very segregated city.

Very,very segregated.  In fact I could have a quarter (I’ve forgotten how much the fare was) and I would catch the Sarah streetcar at St. Ferdinand and Sarah and ride out to the Garden [Missouri Botanical Garden] and get off and walk all through the Garden and then come back and get back on the Sarah streetcar and come back to Homer Phillips.  That was one of the first things I learned to do.

Was to ride the streetcar all the way to the Garden.

To the Botanical Garden.  It was so beautiful and, you know, now it is even more beautiful.

Yes.  So the segregation, or the racism of St. Louis, you didn’t feel it in the Garden, but if you were to go shopping or if you wanted to use the bathroom or eat lunch—

You could feel it, but you know you wouldn’t – you’d fix it so you didn’t have to – you’d eat lunch before you went.

So where did you live when you came to St. Louis?

I lived in the nursing home at Homer Phillips hospital.

The first year.

The first five or six years.

And then tell me, describe to me what the conditions on the pediatric ward were for the babies.

Well, there hadn’t been anybody there who really cared about the pediatric ward and as the nurse – I started, when I got to be the resident in charge I started tightening up stuff.  And the nurse – I will never forget her – told the staff they (the nursing staff) were upset at us; [I] wanted [them] to bathe every morning before I made rounds.  I wanted the nurse’s notes and I wanted a nurse to come along with us on rounds so would know what had happened.  And they were very distressed because they hadn’t had to do all this work.

So you made them work harder.

They had to work harder and they complained to her and she said, “Just wait until I see what can be done about her.”

“We can get rid of her,” but they never did!

Well, I got rid of her.

Now how long did it take for you to become Chief Resident?  First you did a rotating internship?

You did a rotating internship, and then you did a senior internship.

And then the third year you became Chief Resident.

No, your fourth year you became Chief Resident.

So that would have been in 1946 you were Chief Resident.

Somewhere in there.

And Dr. White was very much behind you and helped you.

All the way.

And what year did you pass your boards for Pediatrics?

Oh, that was – let me see, I can’t remember.  But I promised myself if I failed [the boards] I wouldn’t come back.

And so, I want to have the story on tape about your younger brother Homer, who was also a physician, came up to do a pediatric internship and he was four years behind you?

Four or five years behind, but it was maybe longer than that because he was married and had a baby and had been to World War II and when he came here of course he got the internship.  I introduced him to Dr. White and there wasn’t any problem when he decided he would like to do internship here.

His big sister had smoothed the path.

I had smoothed the path.  And he said that to me.  He said, “You know everywhere you’ve been it was just ‘open sesame’ because you had done so well.”  And I was glad to hear that, but what made me very angry was when I got ready to take the boards I saw Dr. Hartmann on the ward one morning and I told him I was taking the board in April and he said, “Well, study hard.”  And of course I studied hard and of course I passed.  I wouldn’t have come back to St. Louis if I hadn’t passed.  And when Homer told him he was going to take the pediatric board, I found they had a study group here and they had, all the boys had, all the exam questions from years past and they had regular study group meetings.  I was never invited to them.

So when you passed, you passed on your own studying.

I said, “Well it’s my grade.  I passed without any help.”

And I’d like to ask you also a little bit about the gender bias at Homer Phillips because you told me a long time ago that you had trouble with some of the black male physicians who did not – maybe because you were this cute little five foot, ninety-two pound doctor, could not listen or hear you when you said, “This baby is sick.”  And I wonder if you could tell me the story about the sick baby.

Well, you would call and ask for a consult and if the resident wasn’t busy he would come or he would say, “Are you sure,” or “Get another x-ray,” or “Get another blood count,” or “Get another—”  He would always give you some busy work to do and you’d have to call and say, “You really need to come, this baby has appendicitis.”

And you had a surgeon who didn’t want to be bothered and said—

A male surgeon who didn’t want to be bothered or a male doctor who was just prejudiced against women doctors and saying we didn’t know anything, how could I know when a baby had appendicitis.

So when he came back in the morning and he said, “Where’s that baby?”

I said, “She’s in the morgue.  She died.”

That must have made an impression on him.  So you were not necessarily very popular at Homer Phillips because you demanded – you made the nurses work harder—

I was not very popular, right.

And then tell me the story about ice cream once a year at Homer Phillips.  I like that story.

We never had ice cream.  I went to the diet kitchen and I asked the dietitian who had gotten to be a friend of mine, “Why [do] we never have ice cream and we never have bananas?”

Two things that babies love.

Ice cream is the American national food and bananas are the most easily digested food on the market.  And she said, “I’ll show you the grocery list that came from downtown.”  And ice cream and bananas were marked for City Hospital only.

Which was the white hospital.  And we’re talking about a time when Homer Phillips was not air conditioned, babies were lying in hot [beds].

You had to beg for a fan, anyway.

You got the ice cream?

I went to the medical director and to the superintendent who was McKnight.

And was it Medical Director Sinkler?

Yes, the medical director was Dr. [William H.] Sinkler.  I said, “Can you imagine the children on my ward can’t have ice cream because they’re black and can’t have bananas because they’re black?”


And he would say, “Miss Helen, here you go again.”  I said, “You have to have ice cream and bananas if you’re little.  You just have to have it.”

Right.  But it’s interesting that Dr. White, even with his concern, he didn’t pay attention.

He didn’t know it.

So you were the one who changed the diet as far as—

I was there when the diets came up and said, “We never have ice cream on this floor.  What’s wrong?”  And the dietitian showed me and so we started having – they said, “Well, Homer Phillips can have ice cream one week and City Hospital will get it the next.”

So they alternated.

And then the people at City Hospital began to fuss.  They had been having it every day and so then they decided to alternate it and then they caused so much ruckus that they just said, ‘Everybody [can] have ice cream every day, all you want.  Just forget it.”

All right.  So that settled it.

That settled it.  The children had ice cream and we also got bananas the same way.

That’s great.  So that was a very, that was a real positive—

It was a crazy thing to have to do.

So racism, as you once told me, was a very intricate web that extended to trivial things that you wouldn’t even think – that bananas and ice cream – that’s crazy.  Now the other thing you told me one time was about the death rate at Homer Phillips from infectious diarrhea.

Well the infant mortality rate, morbidity and mortality rates, were very high for infants all over the country.  And the premature infants at Homer Phillips – because there was no set up preemie unit at the time – had a death rate above 80 percent and there were quite a large number of them born every month.

Did they even have incubators or isolates?

No.  Isolates hadn’t been designed.

So where would they put a premature baby?

In a crib in the room next to a sick child.  They didn’t—

They didn’t even segregate them by illness?

They didn’t know to segregate them.

Because I remember a picture that you showed me of a whole row of them lined up like little cigars in a box.

Well those were the crib things – they used to roll them out on the ward.

I see.

That was a big thing and then every little baby would be in there and they rolled that to the maternity ward and the—

So these were healthy babies then?

Those were healthy babies.

But there was a scandal at Homer Phillips because diarrhea swept through the ward.

One year it swept through and we lost 30 babies and then they said, “What do you need?”  I had been fussing about the death rate, fussing about “We don’t have this, we don’t have enough fluids, we don’t have—”

And finally when disaster strikes you’ve got everything.

You’ve got Gordon Armstrong incubators.

And that would have been 1948 or ’49.  I’m sure that if I go to the Post Dispatch I could find – I bet it made the newspapers that there was this big epidemic at Homer Phillips.

I don’t remember.

In this article I wrote we talked about the segregation of Children’s Hospital and how they had a separate building called the Butler Ward for black children.

They just tore it down.

That’s right.  They just tore it down and when I wrote my thesis I found out that there were some women on the Board of Managers who did want black children to have care in the general hospital, but there were other women who prevailed and said, “No, we’ll build a separate ward.”

So they had Butler Ward.


And then when the big epidemic of polio came in ’45, I think—

[19]47 is what Dr. White said.  But anyway, that’s when they desegregated because—

That was the only place that was really isolate-able.

Right.  So they used the segregated ward for the polio children.

For the polio children, and black infants and children were put all around the hospital depending on their illness.

Right.  And then you opened your practice – you finished up at Homer Phillips, and when did you open your first office and where was it located?  Can you remember that?

My first office was at Vandeventer and Finney.

Vandeventer – and was that a rough neighborhood at the time?

No.  It was the black business neighborhood.  The telephone office was across the street.

So it was like Auburn Avenue.  It was a prosperous street.

Not as prosperous as Auburn Avenue, but there were several black businesses along the street.

And what did people say when you said, “I’m going to open a solo practice?”

“Nobody wants a woman doctor.”  In fact, I was trying to borrow money.  I went to Bishop Scarlett and he told me, “Child, go back in the hospital.  Nobody wants a woman doctor.”

Bishop William Scarlett – the great liberal, the friend of Eleanor Roosevelt – told you to go back to the hospital.

He told me to go back in the hospital, “Nobody wants a woman doctor.”

So he didn’t say, “Nobody wants a black doctor,” he said, “Nobody wants a woman doctor.”  So gender was really the issue then.  So how did you get the money to start your practice?

Between myself and my father.

And you opened—

And he kept saying you don’t need a lot of things.  What you do is if you see a patient in your office and you need something you don’t have, give him an appointment for the next day, go down to Aloe’s, get it and charge it to me, and see the patient the next day.

So he gave you some pointers.

He told me how to do it.

And so your practice flourished.

My practice boomed.

You hung out a shingle, people knew about you—

I mailed notices to all the black doctors in the Mound City Medical Forum and I mailed notices to those at Children’s Hospital who knew me and I mailed notices to all my mother’s friends.

And it said, “Helen E. Nash, M.D. announces the opening of her practice on Vandeventer and Finney.  General Pediatrics.”

1048A North Vandeventer.

We’ll have to ride by there and see.  And so by that time you had built up, you were known in St. Louis, you had—

Well, I had been doing what a lot of people are doing.  I would put my stethoscope and otoscope in a bag and I would make house calls that last year and I had quite a few patients.

So you had built up a loyalty.

In fact, some of the nicest patients were from the Walnut Park area, which is at Grand and Laclede.  And that was my pavement  I used to go down there.

And they followed you back to your practice.

They followed me back to my practice and I see the children and grandchildren still.

That’s wonderful.  So you opened in 1950, your practice, would you say?

I can’t remember the exact year, but I can tell you when we get home.

Okay.  So you opened your practice and then it took off and you were making good money within a year.

By Christmas.  My father said—  I went home the day before I was supposed to open and said, “I can’t do it.  I don’t have any money” and so and so and so.  So he gave me one hundred dollars and said, “Go back and do it, you can do it.”

So he became – I mean at the beginning you said he worried that you were too frail, but then he could see that you were becoming a big success.

He was my great supporter.  So I came back with my little hundred dollars and put it in the bank and I still see the very first patient who came to the office that day and he knows he was my first patient.

What was his name?

I’ll think of his name in a minute.

What was wrong with him?


Oh that’s a classic.  And what was your remedy?

My remedy was to feed him some fruit and things.  I didn’t give him medicine.  I never gave medicine for constipation.

That loosened him right up.


And then I wanted to ask you now that your practice was off the ground, how it was that you became one of the first four doctors to join the attending staff [of St. Louis Children’s Hospital] and who contacted you about that.

Okay.  Well Dr. White told me if I stayed here he would push for me to get an appointment to the medical staff at Children’s Hospital so I could carry patients in.  And whenever he’d say he’d do something like that, he did it.  And I’m sure he worried Dean [Robert A.] Moore to death, but I got a notice to come to a meeting in Dean Moore’s office, which is in the medical school building.  And when I got that there were three other black physicians – all men.  And Dr. Moore talked to us and told us we were all being given appointments to the faculty.

In 1954 this was.  [ed. note:  In December 1949 the first four African-American physicians were appointed to the medical school staff:  Drs. J. Owen Blache, G. A. Gaikins, E. B. Williams, and Helen E. Nash]

I think.  And you could not carry private patients in and treat them yourself.

And then you told me that you were introduced to the Board of Managers.

Dr. Hartmann said he would like for the Board of Managers at Children’s Hospital to see me and it was a sort of anger-provoking thing.  I mean what did they think a black woman looked like?

Well, you know you have to realize again, based on my thesis, these were St. Louis society women whose knowledge of black folk was probably if they had a black maid.  The idea of a highly educated, sophisticated, young woman.  And so they brought you up and—

So I went to the staff meeting – they had a monthly meeting, and I went to that meeting – and Dr. Hartmann introduced me and told them that he knew exactly what he was doing the day I was born.  He was up in the lab trying to make Ringer’s Lactate so infants wouldn’t have so much diarrhea.

That’s amazing.  And I’m sure he must have spoken about your excellent qualifications.

Well, I think he assured them that I wouldn’t bite.

But still, you said you felt like an exotic animal, you told me.  That they were just looking at you.

I did.  I felt like they were looking at something that they had heard existed but didn’t know.

Do you remember, did you dress special in any way?


Did you put on a white coat?

No, because I didn’t wear white coats after I finished my internship.

Right.  And so, then you told me when you would go to Grand Rounds and attend and your patients would be admitted, but didn’t you tell me you weren’t supposed to touch white patients?

You weren’t supposed to, until you got on the staff at Children’s, you weren’t supposed to bother any of the patients, black or white.  And you would see those that they brought down to conference on Friday morning, but as for going up and making rounds it was unheard of.  After my appointment I could do that.

But you were the first black attending physician at that hospital, so it must have felt kind of lonely up there.

It felt like being on the spot all the time.

And Dr. White, was he a presence at Children’s Hospital?

Yes, yes he was so happy.

He was proud of you.  I know he was proud of you.

Yes, he was happy and proud and if I called him up and had to report any untoward incident he would help me handle it.

That’s great.

He was really wonderful.  I guess if you’re breaking into that kind of situation you need someone like Dr. White behind you.

You need a mentor.


And even though he was a man of the nineteenth century and had his prejudices when it came to you, he was very protective of you.

He was very protective.  He was really marvelous.

I’d like to hear about the first patient you admitted.

I used to go to Kinloch to do the well-baby clinic.

That was a black community?

That was a black community and there was a well-baby clinic out there that no one had ever really pulled together and done it well.  Some women doctors had gone out there, but I didn’t find anyone in the clinic whose immunizations were complete.  And I found the women were not used to coming because the doctor was used to not showing up all the time.  And so I started working the well-baby clinic in Kinloch.  I would go there.

On top of your practice you would take on extra—

Every Thursday morning.

And so your practice would be closed on Thursday morning while you—

No, it would be open and the office girl would be there and she would be answering the phone and telling the patients what time I’d be there.

But you’d be at Kinloch for the morning.

I’d be at Kinloch for the morning.  It is now the airport, I think.  Anyway, I used to make house calls on my way back in to town.  I got a call to make a house call on this little girl who was very sick and she lived right around the corner from Homer Phillips Hospital.  And I went and made this call and this little girl had a high fever.  She was sitting on a pot when I came in having diarrhea.  And I examined her and looked at her and I said to the mother, “If I only knew she went to Kinloch, I would think she has typhoid fever.”  The mother said, “We go every week.  My husband runs the movie projector out there and they go every week.”  So I went over to Homer Phillips and got some stool culture material and blood drawing material and took them back to Dr. Blosh who was in charge of the lab and told him I needed these.  I wanted to know what – I didn’t want the first patient I put in Children’s Hospital to have the wrong diagnosis.  So, he said OK – he would do them over night for me.  Anyway, the cultures were positive.  The blood was positive.  She really had typhoid fever, poor thing.

Did she make it?

Oh yes, and I see her now all the time.

But you admitted her.

I admitted her to Children’s Hospital.

Now would she have to be completely isolated?

She was put on Butler Ward, which was isolation, yes.  And I went to see her.  They didn’t know how to comb her hair.

Oh, black hair.  That’s a whole new experience.

Yes, black hair, but she was in to all the things that typhoid people have.  They have the personality change where they won’t speak to you and they won’t look at you.  And she was doing all her little typhoid things.  And one of the doctors, who liked to think he’s a big unprejudiced, doctor wrote in my chart, “It is too bad that Dr. Nash has started the Cloromycetin because now we will never know whether or not the patient had typhoid fever.”

So did you write a note after that?

I just went to him and said, “You know, I wouldn’t be such a fool as to put a patient in the hospital for the first time and not have the diagnosis made.  I thank you for writing in my chart, but don’t do so any more.”

That is so interesting because one of the challenges, I think, of being a first person whether it’s Jackie Robinson or Helen Nash is the whole issue of anger and how you deal with people who patronize you or act ugly.

Well, I think the thing that helped me with that was that I knew him well enough to go straight to him and champion—

Right, but you never raised your voice I’m sure.  You were just too cool to do that.

And there used to be a big reception area down in the entryway to Children’s Hospital and there was a phone there for the doctors only where you could pick up the phone and see if you had any calls.  I picked it up one day and the operator said, “You will have to use the pay phone.”  So I said, “Well, shall I act ugly out here in public or shall I go in a little closet and call her?”

And strangle her.

And strangle her.  Anyway, I decided I would hang up and I went around to the doctor’s coat room and I called.  I picked the phone up and said, “May I have an outside line?” and she said, “I have told you, you will have to use the pay phone.”  And I said, “I’m going to have to tell you that I am Dr. Nash and I want a goddamn line.

And you got it.

I got it, but I also got this woman – she ran around to where I was, weeping and crying and [saying] don’t tell on her, “Don’t get me fired.  I’ll never do it again.”  I said, “I had an answer for you.  I don’t have anybody to tell on you, but I had an answer for you.  Suppose I had been a little black woman whose child had just died up on the floor and I was trying to call my husband.  Think about it.  What were you doing?  You were just using a useless hour of power.”  And she said, “Oh no.  I’ll never do it again.”

Well she probably never did [that] again.  But the question of your – this didn’t just happen early in your career.  You told me that all through your career—

Straight through.

In Children’s Hospital someone asked you one time if you were a baby’s grandmother.  Can you tell me that story?

That was out at St. John’s Hospital.  I was in the newborn unit.  Scrubbed up, in cap and gown, and all getting ready to into the newborn unit to look at a baby and this nurse came in and said, “Oh, you’re getting ready to examine your grandbaby.”

Oh, how sweet.

How sweet.  I said, “You know very well that I am Dr. Nash and I’m not examining any goddamn grandbaby.”  And she turned, she got red and left and she came back later and said, “You know I’m really sorry.  I know very well that you are not examining a grandbaby, that you are Dr. Nash.”  I said, “But you won’t forget it now.  And next time you see a black doctor doing something you won’t do that.”

Right.  And one of the things, being your friend, I have noticed is how you, as your practice became more successful and you took part not only in Kinloch, but you were involved with the Children’s Bureau and you became a public health advocate.  And I notice that black people in St. Louis would say, “I’m Dr. Nash’s patient” like I won the Gold Medal.

The Red Badge of Courage.

Well I think you became a kind of status symbol for the black community because they looked up to you.

They had never had a black pediatrician and they had never – the white pediatricians in town, some did not see black children period.  Some had what they called “black days.”

Special hours.  Because they didn’t want them in the waiting room.

See black children only on special days and they could come to my office any time.

Now did you ever have white patients and when did you see them?

Yes, I had white patients.

Did that start early on?

It really started early because a very poor, ignorant white patient is as bad off as any black patient.

Right.  So they wanted help.

And when you treat them – poor, ignorant white patients were treated as badly as black patients.  So that when you treat the patient nice they come back.

I’d like to ask you now a little bit about the civil rights movement in St. Louis and how that affected your life or your practice.  And what role you played in the civil rights movement, if any, because I know you don’t think of yourself – I mean you’re practicing medicine, you’re busy.  But what interests me is how you gradually – not only were you an attending physician, but also you’re on the board of the Symphony, the Historical Society, the Garden.  When did suddenly you become fashionable in the sense of the white power structure seeking you out?

I would have to look at those years to know which one.

But could you feel it happening?

I could feel it happening.  When my brother came here and did his residency and started practicing he said, “Helen, it’s like an ‘open sesame’ if I go in there and I say I’m Dr. Nash’s sister, all the doors fall open and everybody—”  I said, “Well they don’t do it for me that way.”

Well, so you opened the doors for him.

I blazed the trail and opened doors for him.  I opened doors for other black doctors.

That’s right.

Where I was the only pediatrician for years.  At one time there were five black pediatricians in town and we were all doing well.  So that let’s you know how large the black population was and how badly they wanted their own doctor.

And you moved your office from Vandeventer and Finney to—

To Sarah and Finney; Vandeventer and Finney to Sarah and east, over that drug store.  The black doctors decided to build a building, which is the Tandy Medical Building on Kingshighway.  And they did not invite me to join in with them.

So you were still being cut out—

And my husband said, “Let’s have our own building.”

So, Abernathy and you built that building on North Grand?

We built the building on North Grand.  We bought the land and we built the building.

And you practiced there for twenty or more years.

I practiced there for twenty-some years and it was fun because it was new, it was clean—

And it was yours!

And it was mine.  And the patients loved it.  They kept saying, “I just can’t believe it, Dr. Nash.”

And I remember the waiting room, the way you had it decorated.  You had your fingerprint on everything; the photographs were your photographs.  There was a special teenage examining room to put them at ease.

Well, that was so I could get rid of the mother.

Right.  And it was really your place.  I want to hear about your fortieth anniversary and how Dr. [Harvey R.] Colten decided—

Well, Dr. Colten was really a very nice man and a friend of mine went to him and said [that] I had been telling her I would be practicing 40 years and she said that something should be done about that.

This was 1989.

So she went to Dr. Colten and they did something.  They had a huge party.  It was unbelievable.

It was called Helen Nash Day.

Right.  And it was on the—

[interruption in tape]

. . .  a little bit more about Helen Nash Day.  You said the wonderful thing was that not only did they patients and your grandpatients come, but even the parents of dead patients came, which meant that they never stopped thinking of you as their children’s doctor.

Well, what I learned early was that there is a lot of anger involved about death and dying and especially dying children.  And since the mortality rate had been so high in St. Louis, a lot of people had dead children.  And I think what a lot of doctors did, until we started teaching them how to handle death, was run the other way when the patient died.

And you never did that.

Well I didn’t.  I used to go to the house and pronounce a baby dead.  Then I would go to the funeral and I would usually send a small pot of flowers.  And then I would talk to the mother afterwards and sometimes they would call and say, “Can we be sure that he couldn’t have lived.”  And I’d go over the illness with them.

So you would comfort them and educate them and your connection with them did not end with the baby’s death?

No, they always remembered me and I still see them.  It’s interesting how many of them I still see.  And I know why they remember me.  They remember me because of the baby who died.

Because you didn’t run.  Because I know a young couple whose baby died in Children’s Hospital within the last decade and the doctor ran.  And they never got over it.  They were so bitter that he was not there with them, did not pronounce the baby.

Well, you have to stay with them and you have to – well actually, some doctors may do that because they may feel they may have caused the death.

Or they failed.

They failed somehow.  It is perceived as a failure on their part, but it really is not and I saw [how] my father comforted patients.

That’s what I was going to ask you.

And I saw him go back to see them and I saw patients come back with other relatives.

So he was your role model as a practitioner.

He was my real role model as a practitioner and a doctor.

And he must have been so proud of you.

Well, he got proud of me.  He was here in town one night.  He had an emergency and I called the doctor and he said, “Bring him to the emergency room” and I was rushing up Lindell Blvd. with him and I said, “Are you glad I went to med school?”  He said, “Well I think this is paying off.”

So the Helen Nash Day really was a public recognition.

It was a big Helen Nash Day and I saw patients I hadn’t seen for years and I saw parents of dead patients.  And that was really fulfilling because you always have the feeling that maybe you caused the death, or maybe they blame me.

But I think it was also a chance for Dr. Colten to put his stamp of approval and say, “Look here’s this black woman physician who has done so much for this community.”

For fifty years.  That was my fifty years.

So tell me, when did you and how did you decide to give up your practice?  Was that soon afterward?

Well, I had asked a woman in the Children’s Bureau, Dr. Mason Williams, used to come in and inspect Homer Phillips and continue the grant we had from the government.  And she talked about her practice and one year Harry Belafonte was here in Three for the Road or something.  And I took her and the other doctor who came with her.  I took them to dinner at the old Statler Hotel and then we went up to the play, which was [at] a theater on Grand.  And they had such a good time and we laughed and talked and I said, “How did you know to stop practicing?”  She said, “You will know it when it comes.”  And what happens is you start finding yourself getting irritable with patients, the parent and the patient.  And I said, “This has got to be the beginning of the end.”

So what year did you actually close your practice?  Do you remember?  [19]92 or—

I don’t remember, but I can tell you when I get home.

Right.  And so—

I said this is it – I’m going to jerk a baby off the table.

And you don’t want to do that.  And the last thing I’d like to ask you about is your career in the Minority Affairs Office, because I think you brought a new style of administration.  The Minority Affairs Office had been started in the late ‘60s and had been run for many years by a man who was not a physician and who did not have the understanding that you did of what it took to be a doctor.  And I’d just like to ask you to tell me a little bit about how you changed that office in your two or three years as acting head.

Well, Ed Dodson, who runs Admitting, was a friend of mine and when I was on some committee at Children’s we appointed him head of the child abuse thing.  He asked me to take this job to fill in until they could find a successor to Dr. Lee.  And I said, “Why me?”  And he said, “It’s just pediatrics Helen, you’ll find it’s nothing but pediatrics.  And you can do it.”  And so I went and I did it and I enjoyed it, but he would laugh and say, “I got you didn’t I, I got you.”

But your approach was different from Dr. Lee’s because of your training and experience.

Well you know, they came here with expectations of failure and expectations that they were not good enough or that their application had not been sent back early because they were black and the real trouble was is that they didn’t send it in until late.  And then you had to rush to get them back out.  So I would tell the kids that and I told them one year there wasn’t anybody in the class, any black person in the class, who should be in the lower third of the class.  And why you all are turning up in the lower third I do not know.  They’re surprised, you know.

Well, I think if they have a low self image and they think it’s affirmative action and they don’t deserve to be here, but there’s also the point that you raised with me in a private conversation that you did raise the bar for black [students].  In other words, you were not prepared to admit students just because they were black and wanted to come.

Oh no.  And Ed was not either.  He would say, “This kid will get ground up here.”

And tell me the story about Dr. [Henry] Schwartz and the CARP Committee [ed. note: Committee on Academic Review and Promotions] because that’s a very—

I was on the CARP Committee before I was on Ed’s committee, the Admitting Committee.

And this is the Committee that said why people weren’t making it basically.

It’s all people who were complaining about their expulsion because they had failed to make it academically.  And we saw a student this year and for the life of me I read the chart, I did everything, I went to all the meetings.  I said, “What was she doing in here?”  And Dr. Henry Schwartz said, “You are on the wrong end of the pipeline.  Get on the other end.”

And so you got on.

I got on the other end though Ed didn’t know he had said that to me.  And I think that with Ed’s help we stopped admitting students who really couldn’t make it here, because it is a high ranking med school and the classes are fast, they’re high, and you have to be able to keep up.

And then you told me about an incident where they had a special invitation for black students to go to some gathering and you stepped in and said, “Invite them all together.  This is just another kind of segregation.”  Isn’t that right?

Well, what I was speaking of was at the end of the year there is a banquet and they invite all the students who have helped in the admission office and in the different things and helping showing students around the school when they come to visit and that kind of thing.  And this student, who has graduated, came in my office and shut the door and said, “There is a banquet tonight for honor students and none of the blacks are invited.”  I said, “That can’t be because there are black honor students.”  He said, “No, none of us are invited.”  And he was one of them.  And I said, “Okay, I’ll try to take care of that.”  And I spoke to Ed about it and I asked him did he mind if I did something about it.  And he said, “Go get ‘em.”  I did it and they got invited.  I was told that maybe they would be insulted.  I said, “If they would be insulted let them throw their invitation back, but at least invite them.

And they came.

Not only did they come, but were grateful.  And they were glad.  And I don’t think they’ve been left out of much since then.

But that’s just another example of how your influence changed things.

I think that if you come from a place that has always treated black people as different or lower than or not equal to, you will continue to do it.

It’s just the normal thing to do.

It’s the normal way to behave and until people stop you, you don’t do it, it goes on.

And then I remember when I taught the class on gender and race and we had some young black women who felt they were being treated more harshly or unfairly.  I can remember you saying to them, “You are so lucky to be in this medical school.”  And you gave me the impression that you really felt that black medical schools were obsolete.  That Meharry and—

Well I thought they should be closed.  They said, “What do you think should be done” and I think they should be closed.  I think we should not have an all-black medical school anymore.  Actually Meharry and Howard are not all black anymore.  They have a big mixture of white, Asian, and whatever.  And that has changed, but I didn’t have anything to do with it.

But if you were a young, smart, black women starting out today, you would not—

Straight to the Northeast.

Right.  You would not be going to Meharry or Howard.  That’s really interesting.

Now Dr. Nash is going to speak about how women were treated when she went to Meharry in 1942.

We were treated as anomalies.

Like you were strange.

We came to play.  We didn’t really plan to study.  We planned to do what they used to say, “ride through on someone’s coat tails.”

Get married.

Whatever, get through some kind of way [and] not necessarily having to do with having studied, worked hard, and earned your grades.  So there were four women in my med school class and actually three of us ended up at Homer Phillips, but we actually rode through on our own coat tails.  Not anyone else’s.

Did you have a study group where you got together?

No, we didn’t have a study group.  I’ve never done well in a study group and I didn’t want to go to one.

So you studied by yourself.

My roommate and I, she was a sophomore and I was a freshman.  Margaret.

So when you got to Homer Phillips was there esprit de corps among the women interns?


Everybody was just trying to survive the best way they could.  And four out of sixty that’s a very small – that’s less than 10 percent, so you were a minority within—

You’ve seen that picture of us.

And you were pretty.

And three of those women are dead.

Well the stress – I mean that’s another issue I’d like to speak to you about is the stress of being a minority physician and a minority physician within a minority, which is to say a black woman where the male black medical community did not treat you right either.

Well, what I think helped me the most in that was my father who said, “No matter what anybody says, you can do it.”

So your father’s voice would ring in your ears even now.  Even now you can hear it?

You can do it, yes.  And my niece came to me years ago and said, “Helen, I’m going to be a doctor just like you.”

This is Dr. Alison Nash?

Right.  And I said, “If so, you’re going to have to fight Dr. Homer Nash.”

And she did?

Well, she joined the Navy and paid her own tuition.

That is wonderful.  So that tradition of female independence goes on in your family.

It’s inherited.

There must be a gene for that.


Now we’re going to talk about the medical school and Dr. White, as Dr. Nash saw them both.

Well, he was as much in my corner all my career as my father was, and he was glad to have someone who would help fight racial issues with him.

And plus you were a living example of what—

And I was proof that a black woman could do it.  One day a woman came into my office with a beautiful little girl.  She had on a pink dress with ruffles and she had long black curls.  The thing that amazed me was when they came into the examining room is [that] she stood in the corner screaming.  And the mother said, “She’s deaf.  She can’t hear you and she can’t talk.  And I’ve done everything.”  She had written to Spencer Tracy’s wife, she had written everywhere.

This was a black child?

Yes.  She had been out here [ed. note: Central Institute for the Deaf] deviling them to death and they would not take a black child.

So Central Institute was segregated.

Central Institute was hardly segregated and I didn’t find out how badly segregated it was until I was at the airport one day and here were all these dark-skinned, South American children who were deaf, being taken home by Central Institute students – and much darker than the black child I wanted in.  And so I got really angry and I called Dr. White and I said, “Something should be done.  Do you know no black kids can go to Central Institute.  Their parents live in this city, they pay taxes in this city.  They should be allowed to attend Central Institute.”  He knew Dr. Lane who was the principal then.  He was on the Board at Central Institute and I called it to his attention.  They are tax-free and the black parents are paying taxes here and these deaf children and they don’t see any [local black] deaf children yet they will take a black child from South America and put him in the school.  Bizarre!

And this would have been in the ‘50s?

I can tell you the exact year.

And you helped changed the policy then.

He [Dr. White] went to the Board (Dr. Lane was the principal) and we got Sheila in the school and it was a sort of sliding in katty-corner way because the mother was very bright and had her degree.  She had finished college.  And they decided she could come to Central Institute as a student and she would have to work on her child.  She couldn’t touch the white children.  So she got in and Mrs. Hope became invaluable to them.  I think she may still be teaching at Gallaudet, but she may have retired now.  She taught at Gallaudet and Sheila finished high school.

So there were many intricate aspects of racism, from bananas and ice cream to CID to—

And the thing that was lovely about Dr. Lane was – I was speaking at a church one year and she was there and I was saying instances of horrible prejudices and segregation and I talked about Central Institute and she said, “And I was the principal and I want you to know that is really true.  She and Dr. White did do that.”

So you and Dr. White must have been a real good team.

Well, I would find them out and he would go get them.  Anyway, then Dr. Gladdner’s wife went to the school and she taught, and they started training black teachers.  And then they started admitting black students.  I hope they’re still doing so.

We’re talking about all these issues on top of your running a practice, your attending.  And when did you start teaching medical students?  Was that part of being an attending [physician]?

You did that from the beginning.  When you were attending, you taught because you had to go to clinic and you got clinic patients and you taught.

But didn’t Dr. Colten want you to teach a course in Adolescent Medicine?

No.  I don’t think that’s correct.  He was a good man and he was really kind to me.

What I’d like is to go through the heads of Pediatrics that you knew personally beginning with Dr. Hartmann, whom we know was not racially enlightened, but he did give you a chance.  I mean he put you on staff anyway.


And then Dr. [Philip R.] Dodge came in ’67 and he was a good person.  But Dr. Colten was really the one who made a difference.  Then you were elected president of the staff.

The staff society.

And I don’t know whether that was—

Well – as Dr. White said – I said, “Oh, Dr. Hartmann should see me now.”  And Dr. White said, “His wife would bust a gut.”

So Dr. White lived to see you be president of the staff society and that must have been just great.

It was really funny, especially when he told me, “Dr. Hartmann wouldn’t mind seeing you now, but it’s his wife would bust a gut,” which meant to me she had probably persuaded him not to take black interns and that had reinforced him.  But he was a sort of gentle man.  He’s not like his son at all.

Dr. White was someone who was like your father, your mentor, someone you could trust.  Did your father and Dr. White meet?

Oh yes, they met and they got along and we went out there to dinner and they came over to my house for dinner.  Dr. White loved to find people who couldn’t “re-quote” Shakespeare to him or the Bible and he found his match in Dr. Homer Nash.

They could quote back and forth.

No matter what he said, Dr. Homer Nash would get him.  “I’ve never met anybody like your father, Helen.” I said, “Well, he’s different.”

And I remember, you told me one time how sometimes people will assume because you’re a black physician that you had to crawl out of the ghetto and they don’t really understand that Atlanta was a town and in your family’s milieu education was a normal given of your life.

My grandfather sent all of his children off to Northern colleges.  His son went to Howard, his daughter went to Oberlin, one aunt went to Fiske and because those three didn’t do as well as he wanted them, to he sent my mother to Atlanta University.  She said, “Why didn’t you send me off to school, Poppy?”  He said, “Because the others were crazy.”  But she would have made it wherever he’d sent her.  She was a music teacher.  My aunt went to Oberlin.

So music has always been important in your life.

Music has been important in the family.

And in your life, too.

And in my life.  I couldn’t do without the symphony.

I’m going to quote you on that whenever you tell me you’re going to give it up.  I’m going to play this back.

[Interruption in tape]

. . . clinics opened after the war and they were a memorial to David P. Wohl, their son, who had been killed in the war.

And they opened up well-baby clinics?

They opened up health clinics all over the city and you could hold the well-baby clinic in there.  Lots of different clinics would meet.  One was at Kingshighway and Eastern Avenue.  That was the one that I worked.  I had been working the Laclede clinic, which was way downtown on Laclede.

And you found that the white doctor was—

And when we got out there that day and they started sending patients, I was getting all the patients and Dr. Bleyer was sitting there with no patients.

Because they were all the black patients?

They were sending me the blacks and him the whites.  And I said to the nurse, “Miss Lilly, what is happening here?”  She said, “We have to send the white patients to Dr. Bleyer and you get the rest.”  I said, “Well I’m not going to see all of the patients he’s been seeing so don’t send them in my room.  I’m not going to do it.  And I am going to tell.”

So did you call Dr. White?

I called Dr. White right away, who then called Dr. Melvin Tess – [who] was the health commissioner, I think.  And Dr. Tess told everybody that I thought I could make him let me see white patients.  I didn’t care what color they were, but I wanted them to be divided up equally and I wanted – you would only make patients think something is wrong with them if they could only see a black doctor or if these over here could only see a white doctor.  So, Dr. Tess was really angry with me.  He said, “Helen Nash thinks she can make me—”  So I said, “I don’t think I can make him do anything.  I just know that he’s going to have to come out there and see those that I don’t see because I’m not going to see all of them.”  It was 90 percent black.

Right.  So you would see fifty patients and Dr. Bleyer would see three or four.  So you got that straightened out.

I mean they were nonsensical things, you know.  That got straight and then—

Then there’d be something else you’d find out.

I’d find out they’re doing something else and I’d say, “I’m not going to do that.”  They’d say, “Helen Nash is crazy.”

So when Homer Phillips closed, were you glad it closed?

Oh yes.  I think it should be closed.  And I hate to say it, but I think the building needs to come down because it doesn’t have any plumbing.  And there could be something else put there that would memorialize Homer Phillips.  He was an important person and what it stood for.

But basically you don’t think that Regional Hospital is a good idea either?

Well, it’s too small.  The patient load is going to shake it down.  That’s a very fragile building there.

The old St. Luke’s Hospital [on Delmar Blvd.].  So the problems you saw when you started out in medicine in St. Louis of infectious disease, infant mortality – even now the black infant mortality rate is still double that of whites.

Yes, but black people don’t take as good a care because they can’t afford the care and there are some things that are not open.  Not by racial segregation, but by financial and economics.  For example, the little girl I saw with typhoid fever when I first started practicing.  I mean she could have gotten treated at Homer Phillips, but she belonged in the isolation ward at Children’s Hospital with her typhoid fever where she would get everything she needed.  You know her parents are still alive and I see them at the grocery.  We wave and I see her and it’s really fun.

That is great.  I think that is a very good note to end on.  That’s wonderful.  So your career has come full circle and you’re still in touch with your original patients.

I see a lot of them at the grocery store, or the symphony.

[Tape ends]


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