Thelma Patten Law (1900-1968)

Thelma Patten Law
Courtesy Texas State Historical Association, Fair use image
“Image Ownership: Texas State Historical Association”

Thelma Adele Patten was the first African American female physician to practice medicine in Houston, Texas, and one of the first female obstetricians in the state.

Dr. Patten was one of four children, born to Mason Barnett Patten and Pauline Garza Patten in Huntsville, Texas on December 30, 1900.   Her father, a railway postal clerk, assisted organization of the Houston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1918. After graduating with the honor of class valedictorian from Colored High School in Houston on June 3, 1917, she enrolled at Howard University where she received both her undergraduate and medical school degrees.  She received her medical license in 1924. During her time at Howard, she became a member of the historically black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, and later served as a charter member of the Houston Alumnae Chapter which was founded in 1927 and served as the chapter’s first president from 1927 to 1930.

Following graduation, Dr. Patten interned at the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. and then returned to Houston in 1923.  In 1929, she partnered in a successful independent medical practice with general practitioner, Dr. Charles Whittaker Pemberton.  That year Dr. Patten was one of only 92 black female physicians in the United States.

During her 25 year tenure, Dr. Patten mainly worked at public community clinics that served poor black women and children. For many of her patients, her care was the only medical attention that they received. She worked at a variety of health institutions including St. Elizabeth Hospital,  Jefferson Davis’ Hospital, the Maternal Health Center (predecessor to Houston’s Planned Parenthood Center), and Riverside General Hospital which began as Houston Negro Hospital. Dr. Patten volunteered to run the Negro Health Clinic at Maternal Health Center, improving health of women and children for over 25 years.

Dr. Patten used her various board memberships to lobby for stronger health care for Houston blacks.  She served as a member of the City Health Board, Lone Star State Medical Association, Texas State Tuberculosis Board, and the Houston Medical Forum. She became the first African American woman to be admitted to the Harris County Medical Society in 1955.

In 1931, Dr. Patten became Dr. Thelma Patten Law when she married James Law, a teacher and coach at Phillis Wheatley High School in Houston. Together, they raised James, Jr., her stepson, and their daughter, Paulie Anna.  James Law died in June of 1966.  Two years later Dr. Thelma Patten Law died of heart failure one month before her daughter, Paulie, on November 12, 1968.