In 1931 Dr. Virginia Alexander founded the Aspiranto Health Home in her own house in Philadelphia. She cared for the very poorest members of her community, the third largest African American community in America at that time. As well as general medical care and emergency treatment, she and her colleague Dr. Helen Dickens delivered babies and ran parenting classes. During World War II she cared for coal and iron miners as a public health physician in Alabama, again providing much-needed medical services under the most difficult conditions.
Born in Philadelphia in 1900, the fourth of five children, Virginia Alexander was only four years old when her mother died, and at age thirteen, her father lost his once flourishing livery stable. She decided to leave school and earn the money needed to buy back the business, but her father was determined that she get a good education. Both Virginia Alexander and her brother eventually won scholarships to the University of Pennsylvania.
In order to pay for her living expenses at college, she worked as a maid, a clerk, a waitress, and any other position that would help pay her way. With gifts from local philanthropists, Alexander completed medical school as a model student. She ranked second highest among medical aptitude test examinees after her entry into the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania. African American physicians were discriminated against in many medical institutions, and no Philadelphia hospital would accept Alexander for practical training. She moved to Kansas City for her internship instead. Within a few years, she was back in Philadelphia, running her own community health clinic and serving on the faculty of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Alexander's Aspiranto Health Home, which she founded to serve Philadelphia's poor in 1931, also provided care for new mothers and their babies. Despite lack of funds (many patients could not afford to pay for their care), services included two weeks of post-natal recuperation at the health home.
In 1937, Dr. Alexander earned her master's degree in public health at Yale University, and accepted a position at Howard University in Washington, D.C, where she was appointed physician-in-charge of women students. She also ran a private health practice and worked for the U.S. Department of Health. When World War II broke out, physicians from across the country were dispatched to military bases at home and abroad to care for the injured, leaving many groups at home desperate for medical are. Alexander volunteered for the government, and was sent to the coalfields of Birmingham, Alabama, to treat coal and iron miners living in extreme poverty. It was there that she developed lupus, an autoimmune disease that would ultimately lead to her death at age 49.
Virginia Alexander made the very best of far from ideal circumstances to care for America's most neglected populations. Often working in difficult conditions without charging any fees for her services, she brought proper medical care to disadvantaged African American patients and families. As she said in 1946, "we will have to send physicians into sections which have no bright lights and... take public health across the railroad tracks, to serve those most in need of comfort and care."