Margaret Morgan Lawrence (1914-2019)
As a Black woman, she struggled to get the education she knew she needed to achieve her goals. Through persistence and sacrifice, she succeeded as a pediatric psychiatrist and activist, with a degree in public health and an understanding of how children grew up and developed in big cities.
Margaret Morgan was the second child born to her parents, a teacher and an Episcopal minister. The first was a pale boy with golden curls, nicknamed Candy Man, who died in the first year of life in North Carolina – possibly from an unidentified congenital illness. Her parents worried that the segregated care they received in the South might have contributed to his death, so traveled to New York City for Margaret’s birth in 1914, before moving back South to Vicksburg, Mississippi.
She later told her daughter that she always wanted to become a doctor to save a child like her brother from death. To reach her goal, she moved to New York to live with her aunts while attending a high school that would prepare her for Cornell University, where she received a full tuition scholarship.
She was the only Black student on the arts and science campus at Cornell, and Black students weren’t allowed in the dormitory. She had to live with a white family – as their servant – just to have a place to stay. Nonetheless she excelled in her premedical classes, did well on her standardized tests and applied to Cornell Medical School, where she was certain she would be admitted.
But the dean himself told her she had been rejected. Why? He said a Black man had been admitted twenty-five years prior, and it hadn’t worked out, because he had died of tuberculosis. So that was that.
She was devastated. It was too late to apply anywhere else – but she knew someone who knew someone, and soon she had an interview at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she would be the third Black and the second Black female medical student to ever attend. She was the only Black medical student during her four years, and one of ten women in her class of 104.
She married Charles Lawrence in 1938, during medical school. She met Lawrence when she was 19, visiting Mississippi in the summer from Cornell. Lawrence attended Morehouse College, a historically Black college in Atlanta, Georgia, and would become a sociologist. Together they had three children, including MacArthur-award winning sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who wrote a biography of her mother in 1988.
After graduating from Columbia in 1940, Lawrence hoped to become a pediatrician, but her application for a pediatrics internship at Babies’ Hospital was rejected. She was told that although she was well-qualified, women couldn’t live in the doctors’ residence, and Black women couldn’t live in the nurses’ residence, so there was once again nowhere for her to live. She did her internship and pediatrics residency at Harlem Hospital instead.
While working in Harlem, Lawrence became increasingly aware of social issues and injustices, and she spent a year getting a degree in public health at Columbia with a Rosenwald Foundation fellowship. There she worked with pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, and admired his respect for parents. She began to be interested in the intersection of pediatrics and psychiatry.
She found it difficult to find a job in New York that combined her interests of pediatrics and psychiatry – or to find a job for a Black, pregnant pediatrician in the 1940s. She took a position at the historically Black Meharry Medical College, in Nashville. As the only woman in the medical faculty, she found herself isolated, and she returned to teach only two weeks after giving birth to each of her children. She still dreamed of studying psychiatry. In 1947, her expanded family of five returned to New York where she did a pediatric psychiatry fellowship at Columbia Psychiatric Institute, gaining certification as the first Black pediatric psychiatrist in 1951.
In 1953, she started the Rockland Center for Mental Health, renamed the Margaret Morgan Lawrence Children’s Center in 1998. She worked with children through psychotherapy – through puppet shows, finger painting, throwing water balloons – and understood that whatever was going on with a child, was a part of what was happening with the entire family.
In 1971, she published her first book, The Mental Health Team in Schools, focused on helping schools meet the emotional needs of students in the classroom. She studied the history, strength and resilience of children living in the inner city of New York and in 1975 she published her second book: Young Inner City Families: Development of Ego Strength Under Stress.
Lawrence lived to be 105 years old.
Lawrence Lightfoot, Sara. Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company: 1988.
Essay by Alison Christy, MD, PhD