Sunday, September 7, 2008



My grandmother’s big sister was Thelma Adele Patten. Thelma was nine years older and born on December 30, 1900. Her birthplace was Huntsville, Texas. Located about 70 miles north of Houston, Huntsville is best known for its prison. Huntsville is known as the also the Death Row of Texas. I read somewhere that one out of every four citizens of Huntsville is a prisoner. Before 1923, Hanging was the means of execution. Huntsville is 25 more or less miles from Evergreen, Texas where Eliza was born. I don’t know a lot about my family’s life in Huntsville, although I know that when I was a kid we used to go there and also to Lockhart Texas, a lot. My mother, Thelma, was named after her.

By 1917, the family was living in Houston, Texas where Thelma was her class valedictorian. She attended Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, DC, and received her medical license in 1923. Thelma was one of the founders and the first President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Houston Alumnae Chapter, in 1927. The HAC was the first black Greek-letter organization in Houston, and currently has a public service award named the "Thelma Patten Law Award".

aunt thelma and baby

She began practicing Obstetrics and Gynecology (Ob/Gyn) at Houston’s Negro Hospital in the Third Ward. My mother would be born there in 1937. Planned Parenthood of Houston began in 1936 as the Maternal Health Center. On February 21, 1936, Doc as Thelma Patten was known in the family, delivered the third child of her cousin Arlyne Patten Jordan and Benjamin Jordan, Barbara Charline Jordan. Barbara Jordon would grow up to be a United State Congressional Representative from Texas.

By 1938/39, Dr. Thelma Patten the first black female Obstetrician/Gynecologist in the state, served the black community at Planned Parenthood, and did so for more than twenty-five years. She completed her internship at Washington D.C.’s Freedmen’s Hospital.

Howard University's Freeman Hospital
Freedmen's Hospital was established 1862 in Washington, DC by the Medical Division of the Freedmen's Bureau to provide the much needed medical care to slaves, especially those freed following the aftermath of the Civil War. The hospital was located on the grounds belonging to Howard University and was the only Federally-funded health care facility for Negroes in the nation. It still exists today as Howard University Hospital, one of only three remaining traditional Black hospitals.

Thelma began practicing medicine in Houston in 1924. She was the first Black woman to start her own practice in Houston.

She is also the first black physician admitted to membership in the Harris County Medical Society in 1955. She was a member of the City Health Board, the Texas State Tuberculosis Board, the Texas Medical Association, and the American Medical Association. Tuberculosis was an important issue to her because her brother, Donovan, died from it in 1927, and her sister, Eliza, was one of the first persons to survive it.

Doc was married to James H. Law, a gym teacher and coach at Houston’s Jack Yates High School.
James H. LawJames H. Law

HISD's Law Elementary school is named after him. Together they had a daughter, Pauline Anna Law.


Excluded from virtually all residency programs before the 1950s, only a fraction of African-American physicians were specialists. Doc was unusual because she had a speciality. Most doctors at the time were general practitioners who treated patients of all ages for any health concerns. They set broken bones, treated infectious diseases, and sometimes operated. Her practice focused on Obstetrics and Gynecology, addressing in particular the needs of Houston’s poor women for more than forty years. Since the Jim Crow system prohibited African-American physicians from obtaining privileges at other hospitals throughout the South, the Houston Negro Hospital became a desirable place for black doctors to practice medicine.

Thelma Patten Law died on November 12, 1968 in Houston, Texas.

href="" title="Dr. Thelma Patten Law Obituary by AfroPix, on Flickr">Dr. Thelma Patten Law Obituary