As a child, Margaret Morgan Lawrence grew up grieving a brother she never knew. He was her only sibling, but had died before she was born when he was just 11 months old, and their parents never fully recovered from his death. Margaret often dreamt that she was the child who had died and she could see her own body in a coffin under the large portrait of her brother that hung in their living room. The sadness and loss that surrounded her family led her to decide that she was going to grow up to be a doctor and help other children live — despite the fact that she was Black and a girl at a time when neither Blacks nor women were welcome in many medical schools and residencies. Neither ultimately mattered. Dr. Lawrence went on to become a pediatrician and pioneering child psychologist, going around every door that was closed to her and opening others along the way to become the “first” and “only” again and again.
Margaret Morgan Lawrence passed away in December at age 105 after a long and extraordinary life of service helping make sure children received the strongest and healthiest possible start. During Black History Month and every month, let’s stop and remember trailblazers like Dr. Lawrence who refused to abide by other people’s limits.
Harvard Graduate School of Education sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, one of Dr. Lawrence’s three extraordinary children, captured many pieces of her mother’s story in the 1988 biography Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer. Dr. Lawrence was born in 1914 and grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the daughter of an Episcopal priest father and schoolteacher mother. She excelled in school and after graduating from her local segregated high school at age 14, she moved to Harlem to live with relatives in order to attend a more challenging preparatory school. She then attended Cornell University on a scholarship, where she was the only Black undergraduate on campus. She worked as a live-in maid for White families to gain housing because she wasn’t allowed to live in the dormitories. She excelled in premed studies in college too, but was denied acceptance to Cornell’s medical school because of her race: they told her the only other Black student they had ever admitted 25 years earlier “didn’t work out” because he contracted tuberculosis and died before graduating, and they were not ready to give another Black student a chance. So she kept going.
Dr. Lawrence graduated from Columbia University’s medical school instead, where she was the only Black student in her class and one of only ten women. She was turned down for the first hospital internship she applied for because women were not allowed to live in the affiliated doctors’ housing and the nurses’ housing wouldn’t allow a Black woman, but again she kept going. She secured an internship at Harlem Hospital, and during her time there became keenly aware of how much the poverty and other challenging circumstances children faced in the surrounding neighborhoods influenced their health and the care they needed. This shaped the rest of her professional life.
She went on to pursue a master’s of public health at Columbia, where she studied under the famous pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock. There she learned more about the deep relationships between physical, social and psychological health, and that led her to continue formal training in psychiatry, becoming the first Black resident at the New York Psychiatric Institute and the first Black trainee at Columbia’s Psychoanalytic Clinic for Training and Research. Dr. Lawrence ultimately became both the first Black woman psychoanalyst and the first Black woman physician certified by the American Board of Pediatrics.
She served as chief of the Developmental Psychiatry Service for Infants and Children at Harlem Hospital, as an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and as the first practicing child psychiatrist and co-founder of the Center for Mental Health in Rockland County, New York, and she established some of the first child therapy programs in schools, hospital clinics, and child care centers. Dr. Lawrence was dedicated to serving underserved children and especially interested in helping develop “ego strength” in Black children. She was also dedicated to helping children and families recover from trauma and develop resiliency, and always said helping families was a privilege. She gave other children the thoughtful, loving care she once might have needed.
All along the way, in her daughter’s words, “her life [was] one of courageous boundary crossing; enduring the visibility and distortions of tokenism, and the double oppressions and assaults of racism and sexism” — yet she “faced the virulent barriers of racism and sexism with a deft blend of grit and grace.” All of us who care deeply about child development owe Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence a debt of gratitude.
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.