Justina L. Ford (1871–1952) was a medical pioneer and Denver’s first licensed African American female doctor. Ford is best known for her obstetrics and pediatric work in Denver’s Five Points community. Patients knew Dr. Ford as “the Baby Doctor,” and it is estimated that she delivered over 7,000 babies during her fifty years as a doctor in Denver.
Justina Laurena Warren was born on January 22, 1871, in Knoxville, Illinois, to Pryor and Melissa Warren, both of whom were former slaves. Pryor Warren died when Justina was eight years old. Melissa Warren was a nurse who treated poor African American community members in their neighborhood and often brought Justina with her to help treat patients. As a child, Justina would only play “hospital” with her friends if she got to be the doctor, and she would invent the names of diseases and medicines that she did not know. She would also help her mother cut up chicken for dinner so she could see what was inside.
Justina graduated from Galesburg High School, an integrated high school, in 1890. She then attended Hering Medical School in Chicago to obtain her osteopathy training. While attending Hering, Justina met the Reverend John L. Ford, and the two were married on December 27, 1892. Justina graduated from Hering a few years later in 1899.
Justina began practicing medicine in Chicago shortly after graduation. The Fords moved to Alabama shortly after that, but the state’s unwelcoming atmosphere prompted them to move to Denver in 1902. On October 2, 1902, Justina Ford became Denver's first licensed African American female doctor under license number 3800. When Ford went to pay for her license, the examiner famously told her: “I'd feel dishonest taking a fee from you. You’ve got two strikes against you. First of all, you’re a lady, and second, you’re colored.”
Justina was unable to get medical privileges to practice in any of Denver’s hospitals, since all of the medical societies turned down her application. Instead, John and Justina purchased a two-story brick house in the Five Points neighborhood so Justina could practice medicine on her own.
“The Baby Doctor”
Justina’s patients were anyone who needed help and could not afford to go to the hospital. Immigrants, African Americans, and poor whites all came to her for care. People from all sorts of backgrounds who were delivered by Ford still refer to themselves as members of the “Justina Baby Club.”
Ford always made sure that she was there for her patients. She would often sleep on a cot by the phone so she could answer calls quickly. For patients who needed more than medicine, Ford would buy groceries and coal to help them out in hard times. After Justina and John divorced in 1912, Justina married Alfred Carter, who would drive her to house calls when needed.
Death and Posthumous Honors
Dr. Justina Ford continued to help patients up until her illness two weeks before her death. She died on October 14, 1952, at the age of eighty-one. Before her death, both the Denver Medical Society and the Colorado Medical Society admitted Ford. Denver’s Cosmopolitan Club also awarded her its Human Relations Award in 1950.
Many other groups honored Ford’s work after her death. The University of Colorado established the Justina Ford Medical Society as well as a scholarship in her name. The Warren Library in northeast Denver was renamed the Ford-Warren Library in her honor. In 1984 Historic Denver and Paul Stewart saved Ford’s home and office from demolition and moved the building to California Street, where it now houses the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center. Local artists Jess E. DuBois later created a bronze statue of Ford at the light rail station across the street. In 1985 Ford was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2013 Ford was the subject of an episode of a local Colorado show, Rocky Mountain PBS’s The Colorado Experience, which interviewed local scholars and many of Ford’s former patients to show the impact of her work in Denver.