Black History: Special Delivery!!

Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence (1914 – 2019) was a trailblazing pediatrician and psychoanalyst. Born in New York City, Lawerence grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and later returned to New York to complete high school.  Her interest in pursuing a career in mental health and medicine resulted from her family’s grief when her older brother died of a congenital medical condition before his first birthday. This was 2 years before Lawrence was born. Her family’s grief motivated her to pursue a medical career, hoping that she could save other children from meeting the same fate as her brother.  

In 1932, Lawrence arrived in Ithaca, NY as the sole black undergraduate at Cornell University.  She was not allowed to live on campus due to her race.  Instead, she lived with a white family and did domestic work in exchange for room and board. Lawrence completed her undergraduate degree with excellent grades but was denied admission to Cornell’s Medical School due to her race.  She was later accepted to Columbia University Of Physicians and Surgeons under the condition that white patients could refuse treatment.    She was its only black student of 104 total students in 1940 and one of only ten women.  At Columbia, she was mentored by Dr. Charles Drew, the only black faculty member, and the modern-day blood bank founder. 

To focus on pediatric medicine, she applied for an internship at Babies Hospital.  Her application was denied, not because of her qualifications but because the doctor’s residence was for men only and the nurse’s residence refused to accept a black woman.  Undeterred, Lawrence instead pursued an internship at Harlem Hospital. While there, she became keenly aware of the connections between physical illness and community health, recognizing and fighting against racism and poverty’s adverse effects.  These interests lead her to pursue a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University. As part of the master’s program, she participated in seminars led by Dr. Benjamin Spock, which focused on the relationship between physical and mental health and the community.  It was during this time, that Lawerence was also drawn to the field of child psychiatry. 

Lawrence would go on to teach pediatrics and public health at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN.  In 1948 she became the first African American accepted into the New York Psychiatric Institute.  She also enrolled at Columbia University’s Columbia Psychoanalytic Center as its first black student and obtained her psychoanalysis certification.  Dr. Lawerence dedicated her career to children’s mental health.  One of her accomplishments includes developing early child therapy programs in schools, daycare centers, and hospital clinics. Another career accomplishment for Lawerence was co-founding the Rockland County Center For Mental Health in 1953.

Lawerence served for 21 years as the Chief of Developmental Psychiatry Services for Infants and Children at Harlem Hospital.  She also served as the associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, retiring from both positions in 1984 at the age of 90.  .  

Margaret Lawerence died in 2019 at the age of 105.  Her daughter, Dr. Sara Lawerence Lightfoot, honored her mother’s contributions in a biography:  Balm In Gilead:  Journey Of A Healer.