Edith Mae Irby Jones, African American internal medicine physician, the first African American student accepted to the University of Arkansas Medical School (UAMS), the first African American accepted to any all-White medical school in the South, and the first woman president of the National Medical Association, was born on December 23, 1927, to Robert and Mattie (Buice) Irby in Mayflower, Arkansas. Her father, a World War I veteran and a sharecropper, died after he was kicked by a mule (or possibly a horse) in 1930 (see FARM TENANCY). Her mother moved the family to nearby Conway, Arkansas, and worked as a domestic. There Edith became severely ill with rheumatic fever which caused her to miss a year of school and left her with a heart murmur. In 1934 her older sister, Juanita, and brother, Robert, contracted typhoid fever. Later in life Jones noted that her mother’s visible anguish during her children’s illnesses and the subsequent death of Juanita to typhoid heavily influenced her decision to become a doctor. Edith felt that her siblings received substandard care because their family was poor. Within the next year, the family moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where Edith graduated from Langston High School in 1944. She attended Knoxville College, a historically Black private college in Knoxville, Tennessee (see SEGREGATION and EDUCATION FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS). There she was a member of Delta Sigma Theta and the Alpha Kappa Mu Honor Society. After graduating magna cum laude in the spring of 1948, she attended summer graduate classes at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
In the fall of 1948 Edith Irby Jones became the first African American student admitted to the medical school of the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, Arkansas. This made her the first African American student admitted into an all-White medical school in the South. In a class of ninety-one students, she was the only African American person and one of only three women. To pay for her tuition, Black and White residents of Hot Springs took up a collection to help her pay for her medical school expenses. Contributions of nickels, dimes, and dollar bills eventually totaled $500.
Edith Irby’s acceptance to UMAS in August 1948 came without court action but during a wave of court battles to integrate graduate schools and professional programs at the University of Texas at Austin in Sweatt v. Painter(1950) and the University of Oklahoma in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (1948) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (1950). Unlike the segregated classes experienced by George McLaurin and Heman Sweatt, Edith Irby attended racially mixed classes throughout her years at the University of Arkansas Medical School. She was likely one of the first Black students to attend racially mixed classes at any all-White southern university. The semester prior to her admittance, in the spring of 1948, Silas Herbert Hunt, became the first African American student to attend the University of Arkansas School of Law (UArk-Law) after he agreed to attend segregated classes in the same building as his White classmates; the program was first offered to and rejected by L. Clifford Davis, a 1946 UArk-Law applicant and later district judge in Tarrant County, Texas. To comply with Arkansas state law, Edith used a segregated dining room and segregated restrooms. After a few months she ate with White classmates away from the dining rooms.
On April 16, 1950, Edith Mae Irby married James B. Jones, a World War II veteran and a professor and administrator at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College (AM&N, now University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. J. B. Jones was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in education from the University of Washington. Professionally Edith continued to use her maiden name in combination with her husband’s surname and was known as Edith Irby Jones.
After Edith graduated from medical school in 1952, she completed her residency at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where she was the second African American physician in the residency program for internal medicine. She spent most of her residency, however, at the Houston Veteran’s Hospital, an integrated hospital. During this time, her husband remained at AM&N in Arkansas. She completed her residency at Freedman’s Hospital at Howard University in Washington, D. C., because Texas’s segregation laws prevented her from working at Houston’s Jefferson Davis Hospital. Afterward, she returned to Arkansas and joined the staffs of the Ouachita General Hospital in Camden and a rural hospital in Alamo, Arkansas. She, her husband, and their children lived in Hot Springs.
In 1959 Edith and her family moved to Houston. Her husband became associate dean of students at Texas Southern University and was dean of students during the TSU riot in 1967. Her desire to help those with the least access to medical care led her to set up a clinic in Houston’s Third Ward after a local businessman loaned her $17,000 to open a practice. When she began practicing in Houston, only two other Black women, Thelma Patten Law and Catherine Roett-Reid, worked as physicians in the city. In addition to her private practice, she served on the staff of Riverside Hospital because she agreed with the mission of Riverside to reach both those who could pay and those who could not. She later served as the hospital’s chief of staff. In the late 1960s she helped established Mercy Hospital in southeast Houston to serve the poor and was one of the owners of the Park Plaza Hospital. She also served on Hermann Hospital’s charitable committee.
As a way to connect with other Black physicians, Edith became a member of the Houston Medical Forum shortly after she arrived in Houston. She also applied to the predominantly White Harris County Medical Society (HCMS) as a way to get hospital appointments. She felt she was accepted more easily than other Black physicians possibly because she attended a White medical school. She was among the first African Americans accepted to HCMS and remembered in an interview years later that she “was always the only woman present.” In 1985 Edith Irby Jones was unanimously elected the first female president of the National Medical Association, the national African American professional organization established after Black doctors were barred from joining the American Medical Association (AMA) in the late 1860s. The AMA integrated after federal civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s.
Additionally Edith was a member of many other medical and civic organizations, including the NAACP and the American Association of Black Cardiologists, of which she was a founding member. She and fellow Houstonian Barbara Jordan worked together as members of the Houston Chapter of The Links. She traveled around the United States as one of the “Freedom Four,” a group of professionals who worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., to encourage civil rights activism. Internationally she helped establish clinics in Haiti, Cuba, and Uganda. Clinics in Vera Cruz, Mexico, and Vaudreuil, Haiti, are named after her. Houston declared “Edith Irby Jones Day” in 1986 for recognition of her efforts in the neighborhood of Third Ward. In 2002 she was an honoree of the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame and in 2015 she was inducted into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame. She also received four honorary doctorates.
Edith Irby Jones died at her home in Houston on July 15, 2019. Her wake, which included an Omega Omega service by the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and a “celebration of life” service, was held at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Houston. Her funeral was held at Union Missionary Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. She was buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Hot Springs.