Jones was the first black graduate of UAMS and first black to intern at Baylor’s College of Medicine. She has led a career dedicated to helping the less fortunate receive adequate healthcare in the U.S. and beyond.
Jones and nine others were honored for their efforts toward equality in healthcare during a public ceremony in Little Rock on Friday, October 24, 2014. Learn more at the 2014 Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail Commemoration.
Dr. Edith Irby Jones was born on December 23, 1927, near Conway, Arkansas. The family moved to Hot Springs after the death of her father when she was 8 years old.
Irby’s family were poor and could not afford adequate medical care. At the age of 12, her older sister died of typhoid fever and Irby herself suffered from rheumatic fever when she was seven, rendering her unable to walk or attend school for a year. After these experiences Irby decided to seek a career in medicine.
Graduating at the top of her class from Langston Secondary School in Hot Springs in 1944, she earned a scholarship to Knoxville College in Knoxville, Tennessee. She studied chemistry, biology and physics. Fueled by the desire to help other families similar to her own, she applied to medical school.
When Jones applied to the University of Arkansas College of Medicine, she had the support of blacks across Arkansas. When admitted in 1948, she became the first black person to attend the medical school. Jones’s admission to the school made national headlines. It is believed that she was the first black person to be admitted to a white medical school in the South during the Jim Crow era.
Black people contributed to her medical school fund with dimes and quarters, her former high school classmates helped pay for her medical school tuition. In need of $50 for registration fees, Jones met with Daisy Bates after a suggestion from a former colleague. When she told Bates she was applying to medical school, Bates handed her the money without hesitation. The Arkansas State Press, owned by Bates and her husband L.C. Bates, even paid for her living expenses.
Though Jones was enrolled at the institution she was unable to use the same facilities as her other classmates. According to the Changing the Face of Medicine website, the medical school’s custodial staff supported her by placing a vase of fresh flowers on her table in the adjoining staff dining room every day.
Jones, in turn, worked to help others. Eventually she found herself spending her free time traveling the state with other civil rights leaders such as attorneys Floyd Davis, Harold Flowers, and Bob Booker to help enlist members into the NAACP.
Jones found support from some of her classmates who resisted the segregation rules and accompanied her on and off campus. Jones said that while some white women in her class became her good friends, her strongest support in medical school came from her husband, Professor James B. Jones, whom she met and married while she was a second-year medical student.
In 1952, Jones graduated making her the first black person to graduate from the University of Arkansas College of Medicine. After practicing on her own for several years in Hot Springs, Dr. Jones and her family moved to Houston, Texas. There she became the first black woman to intern at Baylor’s College of Medicine Affiliated Hospital. She ultimately finished her residency at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington D.C. and in the late 1960s worked with other physicians to open Mercy Hospital, a medical facility in southeast Houston that served the poor. Mercy Hospital operated for 10 years until other hospitals in the area began to accept black patients.
In 1985 she became the first woman to lead the National Medical Association and became co-founder of the Association of Black Cardiologists, an organization of African American physicians. Jones has taught and practiced outside of the U.S. and in 1991, established a medical clinic in Haiti. She is also a charter member of the Physicians for Human Rights organization, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998.
Posted In: Honorees