Trailblazing VP&S Alumnus Turns 105

August 19, 2019
Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence celebrates her 105th birthday with family members.
Margaret Morgan Lawrence, MD'40, celebrates her 105th birthday with family members.

On Aug. 19, Margaret Morgan Lawrence, MD’40, the trailblazing African American child psychiatrist who surpassed adversity to establish herself as an expert in children’s mental health disorders, turned 105. She celebrated with her daughter, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, EdD, a sociologist and the Emily Hargroves Fisher Research Professor of Education at Harvard University, and other family and friends at an assisted living community in Boston, Massachusetts.

Lawrence grew up in Mississippi and was driven to become a doctor by the death of her only sibling, who died before her birth. She observed her parents’ grief and hoped that as a doctor she could prevent the deaths of other children. 

Her determination propelled her from high school in Harlem to the Ivy League. She was the first African American woman to graduate from Cornell University and only the third African American woman to attend the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S). 

After completing medical school, she applied to Columbia's pediatrics residency but was denied a place due to her gender. Her mentor, Dr. Charles Drew, an African American doctor who pioneered the modern blood bank and was on the Columbia faculty, encouraged her to forge ahead. She trained in pediatrics at Harlem Hospital, where “her eyes opened to the connections between physical illness and community health,” wrote her daughter in Lawrence's biography, “Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer.”

Lawrence was the first African American resident to train at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and the first African American trainee enrolled in Columbia University’s Psychoanalytic Center, where she received her certification in psychoanalysis. She became the first African American woman psychoanalyst in the United States and the first black woman physician certified by the American Board of Pediatrics. 

Notably, Lawrence brought psychiatric services to underserved communities, developing some of the first child therapy programs in schools, day care centers, and hospitals. For example, she co-founded the Rockland County Center for Mental Health and launched the Division of Child Psychiatry at Harlem Hospital. 

In addition, Dr. Lawrence served on Columbia’s faculty for 21 years until retiring in 1984 as an associate clinical professor of psychiatry. Her faculty mentors included Benjamin Spock, MD’29, whose integrated vision of the child, family, community, and society inspired her outlook, and Viola Bernard, MD, clinical professor emeritus of psychiatry at Columbia, who supported her bid for residency at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.