Skip Navigation Celebrating America's Women Physicians
Changing the face of Medicine Home Physicians
Resources Activities



Dr. MurielPetioni

Year of Birth / Death

1914 - 2011

Medical School

Howard University College of Medicine


New York

Career Path

General medicine
Dr. MurielPetioni


Dr. Muriel Petioni founded the Susan Smith McKinney Steward Medical Society for Women, a professional association for African American women physicians.
Dr. Muriel Petioni was the founder and first chair of Medical Women of the National Medical Association (which became the Council of Women’s Concerns of the National Medical Association).
Dr. Muriel Petioni was the founder and first chair of The Friends of Harlem Hospital Center.


My father was a physician who graduated from Howard University Medical School in 1925. When I was growing up, we had a medical office in our home. As a young child, I enjoyed answering the door bell and telephone and interacting with patients. My interest in becoming a doctor naturally developed. I had one older cousin who was a doctor, and my father had many friends, both men and women, who were physicians. By the age of 12, I had decided that I wanted to become a doctor, just like my father. My mother encouraged me to pursue my goal. My interest was in making people well.


Muriel Petioni, M. D., was dubbed the "matron of Harlem health." Petioni's response? "Yup...They call me a legend." She was an energetic, mischievous pioneer and a self-proclaimed "meddler." In 2002, at age 88, she was still spending almost every day at Harlem Hospital Center, advocating for unhappy patients, and even watching for maintenance problems.

Muriel Petioni was born in Trinidad in 1914, to Rose Alling and Charles Augustin Petioni. Her father became a prominent Harlem physician and was a co-founder of the Carver Federal Savings Bank. She graduated from Howard University Medical School in 1937 and in 1942 she married Mallalieu S. Woolfolk, a Tuskeegee Airman and lawyer. When their son was born in 1947, she took a few years off from medicine. She returned to establish her practice in her father's Harlem medical office in 1950. For the next forty years she saw to the health needs of poor and underserved patients in the Harlem community. She was also school physician in Central Harlem for the City's Department of Health from 1950 to 1980 and supervising physician for Central and East Harlem from 1980 to 1984.

Dr. Petioni was known for her vigorous commitment to women's issues, community medicine, social justice, and health care for the underserved. Women's advancement in medicine has always been important to her, and in 1974 she founded the Susan Smith McKinney Steward Medical Society for Women, a professional association for African American women physicians in the Greater New York area.

In her work with the Coalition of 100 Black Women, Muriel Petioni has developed a mentorship program that guides young African American women into careers in science and medicine. In 1976, she also founded, and was the first chair of, the Medical Women of the National Medical Association (was later the Council of Women's Concerns of the National Medical Association).

Among her many honors and awards are the Howard University College of Medicine Outstanding Alumni Award, given in 1992, and the New York Urban League's highest tribute, the 1999 Frederick Douglass Award, bestowed by Douglass's great-great granddaughter. In 2002 she shared with her son, New York businessman Charles M. Woolfolk, the City College of New York's Generations Public Service Recognition Award. Dr. Petioni died December 6, 2011.

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

Honestly, I didn't have any obstacles. My father told me that I could do anything that I wanted to do if I remained properly focused and that is exactly what happened. You don't have to be brilliant; all you have to be is a good student who is highly motivated.

How do I make a difference?

I followed our longstanding family traditions of community activism and volunteerism. Through involvement in various projects, I worked to find solutions to the many medical and socio-economic issues in my community.

For example, I organized the Black Women's Medical Society in 1974. In 1976, I organized the Medical Women of the National Medical Association. I have been involved with many governing boards, committees, and organizations devoted to improving the health and well-being of the community.

Most recently, I have served on boards of directors of several organizations who are actively involved in improving access to health care and access to health insurance. I am also active in organizations whose missions are to improve housing availability and affordability in our community. Several of these organizations are faith-based, including the Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, which is composed of ninety congregations in the Upper Manhattan area. The primary mission of this organization is to develop affordable housing for low, moderate, and high-income Harlem residents.

I serve of the board of directors of another faith-based organization, the Community Health Alliance. The primary mission of the Alliance is to make health insurance affordable for Harlem residents. We also train outreach workers, who work through the churches to educate people about illness, prevention, and treatment.

As a member of the board of directors of the Greater Harlem Nursing Home, the only black-owned and operated nursing home in Manhattan, I guide this five-star nursing home to continue its tradition of excellence.

As chair and president of the Friends of Harlem Hospital Center, I have helped to raise over one million dollars for an endowment fund to support the Hospital's programs and services.

All of these activities have made a significant difference in the health of this community. I have been told that my work will affect the Harlem community for many generations to come.

Who was my mentor?

My father was my mentor and role model. There have been many other mentors and role models in my life, but my father was the one who made me feel that I could do anything that I wanted to.

How has my career evolved over time?

During the course of my career, I have traveled widely and been exposed to the practice of medicine in a variety of settings, including academic medical centers, private practice, and community-based health care organizations.

Throughout the course of my career, I was able to identify areas where our community was being inadequately served. In many instances, I was able to step in and provide support and encouragement. It is through serving the needs of the community that my career evolved to include social activism and health care advocacy.

My ability to deal with a variety of people from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and economic levels gave me a healthy respect for personal and cultural differences. As a result, people respond well to me and I have been able to get things done in a variety of arenas—educational, political, and economic. By doing these projects, I have served as a role model and inspired others to get involved in the community.

I have demonstrated that change can happen when you are motivated and committed.