Celebrating Dr. Helen Barnes
Yesterday, the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees recognized one of UMMC’s finest, and indeed, one of Mississippi’s finest.
Dr. Helen Barnes, a UMMC emeritus faculty member and the first board-certified African-American woman to practice obstetrics-gynecology in Mississippi, received the Karen Cummins Community Service Award from the board. The award is named for a former IHL board member who passed away in 2017.
The recognition came as part of the board’s celebration of Black History Month. In addition to honoring Dr. Barnes, the board recognized faculty and staff who are advancing diversity on each IHL campus. Dr. Leandro Mena, chair of the Department of Population Health Science and the leader of our programs combatting HIV infection, was UMMC’s very deserving honoree.
If you don’t know Dr. Barnes’ story, I’ll recap it here. She was born in Jackson and spent her early childhood here before leaving the state to attend school in New York City and, later, at a Catholic boarding school in Pennsylvania. It was there, while assisting in the school’s infirmary, that she developed her interest in science, medicine and caring for others afflicted with illness. She ignored conventional advice to become a science worker and set her sights on a career in medicine. Unable to attend medical school in her home state because of her race, she graduated from Howard University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Barnes returned to Mississippi as a general practice physician in the town of Greenwood, where many of her patients were sharecroppers. She left the state again in 1963 following the assassination of Medgar Evers, but returned after completing a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., this time as director of ob-gyn services with the renowned Tufts (Medical School) Delta Comprehensive Health Center in Mound Bayou, Miss.
UMMC lured Dr. Barnes away from Mound Bayou in 1969 to provide improved care for underserved women in need of obstetric and gynecologic care as well as family planning services. She saw patients not only in Jackson but at locations throughout the Delta, and was instrumental in establishing and later directing UMMC’s primary care clinic at the Jackson Medical Mall Thad Cochran Center. Although she officially retired in 1983, she continued to see patients, and was inducted into our Medical Alumni Chapter of the UM Hall of Fame last year.
After retirement, she became a kind of guardian angel for Boyd Elementary School in Fondren, providing financial assistance for unmet needs and some of the niceties that public schools often do without. She also established an endowed scholarship to assist minority students interested in a medical career.
During her more than four decades of service, Dr. Barnes provided care to thousands of women and babies, many of them poor and disadvantaged. To this day she has also served as a teacher and role model for countless health professions students.
One of those students was Dr. Doug Rouse, an IHL board member and orthopaedic surgeon in Hattiesburg. At yesterday’s ceremony, Dr. Rouse recounted the day when, as a first-year medical student here, he arrived at a lecture hall that uncharacteristically had a standing-room-only audience. The explanation: “Dr. Helen Barnes is lecturing today.”
Dr. Rouse added that at one time, most ob-gyns practicing in Mississippi would list Dr. Barnes as the person who most influenced them. That influence extends beyond the state, through her volunteer service in leadership roles with many prestigious national committees, agencies and foundations. (Click here to see a short video interview with Dr. Helen Barnes.)
No matter how well you know Dr. Barnes, being around her leaves you with the overwhelming awareness that you have been in the presence of someone extraordinary. When I think of her, I think of the two character traits I’ve written about before in VC Notes – courage and persistence. She exudes a personal grit and determination, coupled with a deep sense of humility. As a black woman physician in the deep South, she faced obstacle after obstacle during her long career. Yet she simply shrugged them off and marched onward, often with a knowing smile that she would not be denied in doing what was important to her.
In this month where we highlight the heroes and heroines of the black experience in America, Dr. Barnes’ example is one we will always remember and cherish, as we strive to achieve a more diverse, equitable and healthier Mississippi.