The Colorado “Baby Doctor” who Defied Racial Boundaries

Denver General Hospital Approx 1910. Courtesy of DPL Western History Collection, X-28546

In 1860, Denver’s first hospital was a log cabin located at the corner of Larimer Street and Cherry Creek Drive. Founded by two doctors, Dr. John Hamilton and Dr. O.D. Cass, City Hospital served the fledgling Denver community. With a population of less than 5,000 people the early hospital was sufficient to support the city’s needs.

Denver’s population increased quickly with the Colorado gold rush. Thousands more people immigrating to the area brought contagious diseases, a new variety of ailments and an increasing need for medical assistance. There was a constant need for larger medical facilities.

City Hospital founder Dr. Hamilton left Colorado to serve with the Union Army at the onset of the Civil War. In 1870 Dr. John Elsner was appointed as the County Physician and moved the growing City Hospital to 9th Avenue and Champa Street. By 1873 the 29-bed facility had again reached its capacity and Dr. Elsner petitioned the County to fund and build a new hospital.

Vacant land at 6th Avenue and Cherokee was chosen for the new home of the hospital, where the facility remains today. Through the years the hospital would grow and go through a series of names. From City Hospital to Arapahoe County Hospital, Denver General Hospital to the medical center we know today, Denver Health.

Medical care in Denver at the turn of the century wasn’t confined to City Hospital. Dr. Justina Ford moved to Denver in 1902 and quickly obtained her Colorado medical license. The young doctor had two distinctions that not only set her apart from all other physicians in Colorado but would serve as an obstacle for the remainder of her life. Dr. Justina Ford was not only one of just five African American physicians in Colorado, but she was the only doctor who was an African American woman.

Upon getting her medical license, Dr. Ford applied to work at City Hospital but was denied a position. She was not a member of the Colorado Medical Society (CMS) or the American Medical Association (AMA), each a requirement to work in a Colorado hospital. Because she was African American, both the CMS and AMA refused her entrance into the associations.

Undeterred, Ford soon began serving the community by seeing patients in her own home. She opened her doors to all races, genders and nationalities, regardless of their ability to pay. With a heart to simply help people, she would often provide food and other necessities to families in need. Working with mothers and children, she became known as the “Baby Doctor” and delivered an estimated 7,000 babies through her career.

Still seeking access to City Hospital, Dr. Ford continually applied to the Colorado Medical Society and American Medical Association for membership. When one of her patients needed more care than she could provide, they would go to City Hospital. But once there, Dr. Ford lost the ability to care for them.

Dr. Ford’s persistence eventually paid off. In 1950, at 79 years of age, both associations finally approved her application, giving her the ability to work in a Colorado hospital. Paving the way for future African American and women physicians, she remained the only licensed African American female physician in Colorado when she passed away in 1952.

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