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Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence





Year of Birth / Death

b. 1914


Medical School

Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons


Geography

LOCATION
New York


Career Path

Psychiatry: Child and Adolescent
Pediatric medicine
Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence



Milestones

YEAR
1975
ACHIEVEMENT
Dr. Margaret Lawrence was the first recipient of Rockland County, New York’s J. R. Bernstein Mental Health Award.
YEAR
1948
ACHIEVEMENT
Dr. Margaret Lawrence was the first African American to complete a residency at the New York Psychiatric Institute.
YEAR
1953
ACHIEVEMENT
Dr. Margaret Lawrence was co-founder of the Rockland County Center for Mental Health in New York.
YEAR
1953
ACHIEVEMENT
Dr. Margaret Lawrence was the first practicing child psychiatrist in Rockland County, New York.
YEAR
1948
ACHIEVEMENT
Dr. Margaret Lawrence was the first African American trainee to be certified in psychoanalysis at Columbia University's Columbia Psycoanalytic Center.


Inspiration

In childhood and through adolescence I said I wanted to become a doctor because of the death of my only sibling, a brother, at eleven months, and two years before I was born. Someone like me could have saved him. In the same years my father, an Episcopal priest, said to me, "If the boy had lived he would have been a priest of the church." During college years and later I wanted to return, as a doctor to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where I grew up, to start a church medical clinic.



Biography

In 1932, Margaret Morgan Lawrence became the only African American student at Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences. Challenging the double discrimination of racism and sexism that she faced as she launched her career in medicine, Dr. Lawrence has gone on to have a distinguished career of breakthroughs and successes. She was the first practicing child psychiatrist in Rockland County and co-founded the Rockland County Center for Mental Health in New York, and in 1975, she was named the first recipient of the county's J. R. Bernstein Mental Health Award.

Margaret Morgan Lawrence was born in New York City in 1914. She grew up in Mississippi, and returned to New York to attend high school. As a child, she knew that her parents, an Episcopal priest and an elementary school teacher, were devastated when her only brother died two years before she was born. She grew up hoping that if she were a doctor she could save children like him.

Margaret Lawrence was denied admission to Cornell Medical School although she had just graduated from Cornell College with outstanding grades. The dean explained that twenty-five years earlier they had admitted a black student, but that the student had died from tuberculosis before graduating. When she later applied for an internship at Babies Hospital, she was rejected because the doctor's residence was for men only and the nursing residence refused to give her accommodation because of her race.

Lawrence was only the third black woman to attend Columbia University of Physicians and Surgeons and the sole black graduate in a class of 104 in 1940. She was encouraged by the only black member of the Columbia faculty, Dr. Charles Drew, who said that if she did her best work, race wouldn't matter. So when her application was rejected at Babies Hospital, she pursued a pediatric internship at Harlem Hospital. Spiritual support and role models also came from prominent professional women in the Harlem community.

While earning her master of public health degree at Columbia University in 1943, under the tutelage of Dr. Benjamin Spock, Dr. Lawrence became aware of the connections among physical, social, and psychological health. Later in her career she built on Dr. Spock's integrated vision of the child, family, community, and society, and explored the connections between physical illness and community health.

During World War II, she taught pediatrics and public health at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. Already using 'homespun child psychiatry,' Dr. Lawrence decided to pursue formal training in psychiatry. In 1948 she became the first African American resident ever admitted to New York Psychiatric Institute, thanks to the intercession of Dr. Viola Bernard, professor emeritus in psychiatry at Columbia. Lawrence enrolled at Columbia University's Columbia Psychoanalytic Center, as its first black trainee, and obtained her certification in psychoanalysis.

Dr. Lawrence devoted herself to the child mental health, with accomplishments that included developing some of the first child therapy programs in schools, day care centers, and hospital clinics. For twenty-one years, she served as chief of the Developmental Psychiatry Service for Infants and Children (and their families) at Harlem Hospital, and as an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. She retired from both positions in 1984.

In an article in the Journal of Religion and Health published in 2001, she wrote "Love is universal, generational, and exists only in relationship." This seems an appropriate summary of Dr. Lawrence's approach: a relationship of love to and from her community, her family, her profession, and her church. She describes her work with children and families as integrating psychoanalytic wisdom with spirituality.

Dr. Lawrence's commitment to community, justice, and peace are clear in the long list of her affiliations and deeds. She has lived in a cooperative community in Rockland County, New York, since 1951. She co-founded the Rockland County Center for Mental Health in 1953 (now part of the Yeager Center). Its child development center, renamed the Margaret Morgan Lawrence Children's Center in 1998, provides early diagnosis and treatment for children under age six who are experiencing emotional trauma.

Since 1943, Dr. Lawrence has been a member of the Peace Fellowship of the Episcopal Church. In 1998 she received an honorary doctorate of humane letters (L.H.D.) from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University. Margaret Morgan and her late husband Charles Lawrence II, raised a son and two daughters, and in 1998, her daughter Dr. Sara Lawrence Lightfoot celebrated her mother's remarkable career in a biography: Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer.



Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

My biggest obstacle was extended family and money. But I was determined. The family thought that I would get married and not become a doctor. The Church, at my father's request offered a scholarship.

How do I make a difference?

First I made a difference by working with black children as a pediatrician and teaching pediatrics and public health at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee from 1943 to 1946. Moving into child psychiatry and psychoanalysis, I was and am still able to work with a concern for the presence and development of ego strength in young black families.

Who was my mentor?

My mentor was Dr. Viola W. Bernard, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in New York City.

How has my career evolved over time?

See my biography, Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer, written by my daughter, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. Following training in psychoanalytic child psychiatry at the Child Development Center (NYC) with Nathan Ackerman, M.D., and Peter Neubauer, M.D., I consulted with a number of day-care centers in New York City.

From 1953 to 1954, John A.P. Millet, M.D. of the Rockland County Community Mental Health Center, and I co-organized and supervised the treatment of children by the school psychologists of the nine school districts in Rockland County, New York. Subsequently I organized the "School Mental Health Center" for the nine school districts. I also worked with Ms Jean Houser, the Rockland Treatment Center for Mentally Ill Children, the Child Development Center of the Rockland County Community Mental Health Board, which in 1988 was renamed the Margaret Morgan Lawrence Children's Center.

I organized in the Division of Child Psychiatry, the Developmental Psychiatry Center for Infants and Young Children and their Families and its Therapeutic Nursery at Harlem Hospital Center in 1963. In 1972 I traveled with professor Charles R. Lawrence II to the southern United States to observe children considered "strong"[healthy] by their teachers and directors in day-care centers and nurseries, and to interview their families, who had been a part of the civil rights struggle of the sixties. In 1973 my husband and I visited day-care centers in five countries of East and West Africa, with a similar concern for the "strength" [well-being] of their children, especially as related to the combination of traditional and western education of which they were a part. Eleven years ago I became a founding board member of the Harlem Family Institute (HFI) of which Stephen Kurtz, Ph.D., was founder and first director.

The HFI provides training in psychoanalytic psychotherapy to advanced mental health workers. In return for their training they provide psychotherapy for children and families, under supervision, in one of the seven schools in the Harlem community, New York City. In October 2002, I offered a workshop on child psychotherapy to HFI trainees in my "office playroom" in Rockland County.