Thelma Adele Patten Law, Houston’s first African-American female physician, was born on December 30, 1900, in Huntsville, Texas, to Mason B. Patten and Pauline (Garza) Patten. Thelma’s parents were prominent community leaders in Houston. Her father was a railway mail clerk and founding member of the NAACP Houston chapter, and her mother was an educator.
Patten was valedictorian of Colored High School (renamed Booker T. Washington High School) of Houston when she graduated in 1917. After graduating from Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1923, Patten interned there at Freedmen’s Hospital from 1923 to 1924. She then returned to Houston and joined other black physicians who served the 30,000 African-American citizens of the city when she set up practice in 1924.
In 1931 she married James H. Law, an educator, and they lived near Texas Southern University in a “beautiful white cottage,” according to historian Thelma Scott Bryant, who remembered the home fondly as a place where many social events were held. “It was known as 2 Pine Manor because two pine trees grew in the front yard.” They had a daughter, Pauline Anna.
Dr. Thelma Patten Law, whose specialty was obstetrics and gynecology, offered female patients prenatal care and the opportunity to have babies in a hospital attended by a physician, many for the first time. She delivered hundreds of babies at the Houston Negro Hospital (later known as Riverside General Hospital) after it opened in 1927. Perhaps the most famous of her babies was Barbara Jordan who rose to become a United States congresswoman. Law’s office was in the Odd Fellows Building at 500 Louisiana along with other African-American physicians and professionals. In the early 1940s she set up practice in the Pilgrim Building at 222 West Dallas in the historic Fourth Ward. She also practiced at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Houston and was on the staff of Prairie View Hospital.
Law was a member of the Lone Star State Medical Association, the Houston Medical Forum, American Medical Women’s International Association, and the Texas State Tuberculosis Association (for which she also had served as director). In 1955 she became the first African-American woman to gain admission into the Harris County Medical Society. She was Grand Medical Examiner of the Grand Court of Calanthe, an organization serving African-American women and others. She was also a member of the Planned Parenthood Center (which began as the Maternal Health Center) for more than twenty-five years and a board member of the city of Houston Board of Health.
Law led a very active social life and was cofounder and first president of the Houston chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority in 1927. The sorority paid tribute to her during their annual Founders Day activity, according to Nell Grovey Cole, historian for the organization. In 1951 Law was a cofounder of the Houston chapter of Links, Incorporated, a national organization founded five years earlier to “link” friendships and resources to help improve the quality of life for disadvantaged African Americans. When the Houston group celebrated fifty years with a gala, Law and thirteen other cofounders were remembered.
Thelma Patten Law was a devoted patron of the Blue Triangle branch of the YWCA, founded in Houston in 1918 to serve African-American women. She and others hosted numerous teas, dances, and other social events in the building on McGowen Street in Houston, often to raise money for local underprivileged families. Two portraits of her hang in the building foyer. Law was active with the Girl Scouts, NAACP, Houston Inter-racial Commission, and served on the governing board of the Negro Child Center. In 1962 she was honored as “Woman of the Year” by the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority.
Law and her family were active members of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church located not far from their home. She died on November 12, 1968, and was buried alongside her husband at Paradise North Cemetery in Houston. She was survived by her daughter and a stepson, James.