Dr. Justina Lauren Warren Ford, A Giant of Love, Hope and Caring
Justina Lauren Warren was born on January 22, 1871, in Knoxville, Illinois, just several years after the Civil war. She was one of many children. Her parents were Pryor and Melissa Warren, both of whom were former slaves. Pryor Warren died when Justina was eight years old. Her mother then supported the family as a nurse. Justine enjoyed accompanying her mother when she visited and treated patients. As a child, Justina loved to play hospital, and made up names for illnesses. She said in an interview that she would “dress up the chickens for dinner just to take a look at the insides and see what they were like.” Perhaps the path was clear to her even then.
Justina graduated from Galesburg High School, an integrated high school, in 1890. She then attended Hering Medical School in Chicago to obtain her osteopathy training. While attending Hering, Justina met the Rev. Dr. John Elijah Ford, a Baptist minister, and the two were married on December 27, 1892. Justina graduated from Hering a few years later in 1899.
Justina worked in a hospital in Alabama, where she was director, for two years. She was the director, but the hospital and the community refused to recognize her as a “doctor.” Because of the state’s unwelcoming atmosphere, they moved to Denver, Colorado, around 1902. Justine applied for her medical license and was told by the examiner, “I feel dishonest taking a fee from you. You’ve got two strikes against you to begin with. First of all, you’re a lady, and second, you’re colored.” African Americans were barred from working in hospitals or joining the Colorado Medical Association. Justina persisted and On October 2, 1902, Justina Ford became Denver’s first licensed African American female doctor under license number 3800.
Despite being barred from hospitals, Dr. Ford was determined to practice medicine. She purchased a two story brick home in the Five Points area east of downtown Denver, and set up a private practice there, specializing in gynecology, obstetrics, and pediatrics. Dr. Ford later told a writer for the Negro Digest that she “fought like a tiger” against discrimination.
From her home office where she practiced medicine for over fifty years, she served a very diverse clientele including Spanish, American Indian, Chinese, Greek, Japanese, “plain whites” and “plain colored” patients, and non English speaking immigrants who were turned away from local hospitals. Dr. Ford became fluent in multiple languages to better communicate with her patients. Her patients affectionately referred her to as “The Lady Doctor.” Dr. Ford charged a more than reasonable fee of $15 - $20 for prenatal care and delivery, but her patients often paid her in groceries, poultry, textiles, or other goods or services. She treated the poorest patients for free and often brought them blankets, coal and food.
Dr. Ford believed that when at all possible, children should be delivered at home. One family described her arriving to deliver a baby on Thanksgiving. As the mother labored, Ford put on an apron and helped finish Thanksgiving dinner, then delivered the baby. Dr. Ford delivered over 7,000 babies during her career.
Finally, in 1950, the Colorado Medical Association admitted Dr. Ford, but she was never admitted to the American Medical Association. She also became a member of the Denver General Hospital as a faculty member, and was still the only female African American doctor in Denver. However, she was not allowed to practice medicine there.
Dr. Justina Ford received the Human Rights Award from Denver’s Cosmopolitan Club in 1951. She practiced medicine until just two weeks before her death in 1952. Just before she died, Dr. Justina Ford summed up her life’s work: “…When all the fears, hate, and even some death is over, we will really be brothers as God intended us to be in this land. This I believe. For this I have worked all my life.”