By Katharine Q. Seelye
As a senior at Cornell in the 1930s, Margaret Lawrence had a nearly perfect academic record and expected to attend the university’s medical school. But Ms. Lawrence (she was Margaret Morgan at the time), the only black student in her class, was denied admission.
“Twenty-five years ago there was a Negro man admitted,” the dean of the medical school told her, “and it didn’t work out.” That man had come down with tuberculosis and died, thus failing to graduate. It was excuse enough to reject her.
She absorbed the shock, then applied to Columbia University’s College of Physicians and
Surgeons. She was accepted, on the condition that she would not protest if white patients refused to be seen by her. (None did.) She agreed and became the only black student in her class of 104 who graduated in 1940.
She would still face discrimination, often being mistaken for a cleaning lady. But she went on to become a renowned pediatrician and child psychiatrist and the first African-American female psychoanalyst in the United States, according to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, where her career began.
When she died on Dec. 4 at an assisted living facility in Boston, she was 105. Her daughter Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who confirmed the death, said her health had declined in recent months.
A student of Dr. Benjamin Spock, Dr. Lawrence was a pioneering therapist who treated young families in Harlem and in Rockland County, just northwest of New York City. There, in 1949, she and her husband helped establish a progressive, racially integrated cooperative community called Skyview Acres, where she lived for almost 70 years before moving to Boston to be near her daughter.
“She was an innovative, iconoclastic, unusual child psychiatrist,” said Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot, a Harvard sociologist, who detailed her mother’s life in a book, “Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer” (1988).
“She understood that not just the interior life of a person but their context in the life of the
family as well as forces in the community, particularly forces that are discriminatory, can leave people oppressed and marginalized,” Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot said.
Dr. Lawrence became known for her empathy, even reverence, toward children. She saw her task as helping them develop their “ego-strength,” building their sense of self-worth.
“Strength abounds in Harlem,” Dr. Lawrence once said. “Three hundred years of oppression and it survives.”
Margaret Cornelia Morgan was born on Aug. 19, 1914, in Harlem. Her parents, the Rev. Sandy Alonzo Morgan, an Episcopal priest, and Mary Elizabeth (Smith) Morgan, a schoolteacher, were a middle-class couple living in Virginia at the time but went to Harlem for the birth because they had relatives there and believed they would get better care than in the Jim Crow South.
They moved back to Virginia after the birth, then eventually settled in Vicksburg, Miss.,
where Mr. Morgan had been assigned to a church. Margaret was raised there.
Margaret knew from an early age that she wanted to be a doctor. Her parents’ first child, a boy, had died in infancy two years before Margaret was born; she resolved to become a doctor to save babies.
She graduated from Vicksburg’s all-black high school at 14 but knew her education was inadequate. She went to live with her grandmother and aunts in Harlem, where she attended the selective Wadleigh High School for Girls. Two years later, she graduated with prizes in Greek and Latin. With a scholarship in hand, she headed to Cornell in 1932 as a pre-med student.
As the only black undergraduate in her class, she was barred from living in a dormitory. Instead, she worked as a live-in maid for white families, doing the wash, serving meals and, in one case, sleeping in an unheated attic. Her aunts in Harlem sent her a raccoon coat for warmth.
On a visit back to Vicksburg while a student at Cornell, she met Charles R. Lawrence II, a sociologist and civil rights activist who had also grown up in Vicksburg. They married in 1938 and had three children.
Mr. Lawrence died in 1986. In addition to Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot, Dr. Lawrence is survived by another daughter, Paula Lawrence-Wehmiller; a son, Charles R. Lawrence III; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
While she was the only black student in her medical school class at Columbia, she was one of 10 women, and that gave her some comfort and support. But she still felt the sting of racism.
She was often stopped on the street by white women asking if she could clean for them. She recalled that one of her professors, who wanted to compliment her, told her, “Margaret, you don’t even seem like a Negro — you fit in so well.” When she turned 21 and went to register to vote, she was asked to take a literacy test.
During a pediatric internship at Harlem Hospital, she became involved in politics and the civil rights movement, spurred on in part by her husband, who was a conscientious objector during World War II. Along with other young doctors, she advocated for better medical care for poor people and joined national and international movements for peace and social justice.
She earned her master’s degree in public health from Columbia in 1943. There she studied under Dr. Spock, known as “the world’s pediatrician,” who was famous for dispensing what he called “common sense” (critics called it “permissive”) advice to postwar parents raising the baby boom generation. He was the first doctor she had met who talked about the connection between physical health and psychological well-being, she is quoted as saying in her daughter’s book. She also watched him listen carefully to mothers and treat children with respect, and she vowed to pattern herself after him.
“It was Spock who gave me my first firm feeling of being a pediatrician and a child psychiatrist,” she said.
After a teaching stint at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Dr. Lawrence returned to Columbia to begin her formal training in psychiatry and psychoanalysis.
She served as chief of developmental psychiatry services for infants and children at Harlem Hospital for more than 20 years and as an associate clinical professor at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. She later opened a private psychiatric practice in Rockland County and helped establish a mental health program in the local school system.
Her interest in psychiatry stemmed partly from her own childhood. As she told her daughter Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot, her mother did not like the itinerant life of a preacher’s wife and suffered from depression. After each move, she spent weeks in bed.
In addition, her mother and father remained grief-stricken over the death of their infant son. Whenever they moved, they placed a large portrait of him, measuring three by four feet, prominently in their new living room.
The brother she had never known, who was named after his father and nicknamed Candy Man, came to dominate Margaret’s inner life. She had a recurring dream that she was the one who died and was laid out in a coffin beneath the portrait.
Candy Man represented what she could never be. He was a boy, for one thing, who, her father believed, would have grown up to be a priest like him. A girl could not be a priest. Beyond that, he had light skin. Dr. Lawrence was darker and always felt she suffered by comparison.
She recalled years later that as a medical student she had wished that she could have blended in with the other students.
“I feel especially self-conscious about my hands,” she told Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot. “I think, If only I had on my white coat, I could put them in my pockets” to disguise them. But, she said, “Here I am, black as you see me.”
These early injuries helped motivate Dr. Lawrence to devote her life to supporting the emotional well-being of children and families in hopes that they would not suffer the way she did.
In 2008, Dr. Lawrence was surprised to receive a letter from Frank H.T. Rhodes, a former president of Cornell. Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot, who had met him in another context, had told him about her mother’s rejection from the medical school.
“He wrote her a short letter of sincere and serious apology for the assaults of discrimination and racism she had suffered,” Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot said, though it had occurred long before he became president.
She said that her mother, then in her mid-90s, told Dr. Rhodes that the experience had left scars, but that she appreciated his “respectful and heartfelt apology.”
Katharine Q. “Kit” Seelye has been the New England bureau chief, based in Boston, since 2012. She previously worked in the Washington bureau for 12 years, has covered six presidential campaigns and pioneered The Times’s online coverage of politics.