Pioneering doctor helped black residents of Baltimore

H. Maceo Williams' life to be commemorated Monday

  • Dr. H. Maceo Williams, a pioneering physician who had been director of the Druid Health Center, talks with Mrs. Atlay Ruffin and her children at the clinic.
Dr. H. Maceo Williams, a pioneering physician who had been director… (William H. Mortimer, Baltimore…)
February 19, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Tom Saunders, director of Baltimore's Renaissance Productions and Tours, which specializes in African-American heritage tours, called the other day to talk about Dr. H. Maceo Williams.

Williams, whom he described as being an "almost forgotten" individual, had made tremendous contributions to the health and welfare of the city's black citizens during his lifetime.

At 9 a.m. Monday, a ceremony to be held at the Arch Social Club, Pennsylvania and North avenues, will commemorate Williams' life.

For 27 years until retiring in 1966, Williams had been director of the segregated Druid Hill Health Center and was the first African-American to be hired for a full-time position by the Baltimore Health Department in 1939.

While the pay was low and the hours long, Williams, a Howard University College of Medicine graduate who had also studied pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, told The Evening Sun at the time that the reward was "the smile on the face of a child and the tearful appreciation of a mother."

The son of a mail carrier and a homemaker, Williams was born in Northwest Baltimore. He was 2 when his father, Nelson, died of pneumonia in 1900.

His mother, Minnie, went to work for her brother, Harry O. Wilson, who had established the Mutual Benefit Society, an insurance company, and later rose to become vice president and treasurer of one of Baltimore's early black-owned businesses.

Williams was a graduate of the old Colored High School — later renamed Frederick Douglass High School — and entered the Army during World War I. After graduating from medical school, he completed his internship at Freedman's Hospital in Washington.

From 1924 to 1938, Williams was in private practice, first in an office in his mother's Madison Avenue residence and later in a Saratoga Street building. In 1936, he purchased a home at 201 N. Carey St., where he had an office as well.

"In private practice he made very little money. His patients in racist Baltimore had hardly any money as the Great Depression approached and struck," his daughter, Dr. Eugenia W. Collier of Baltimore, wrote in a biographical profile of her father.

"It is said that there were times when he not only did not get paid but actually left money for the patient's medicine. (Some patients named their new babies after him)," she wrote.

Williams earned extra income by conducting medical examinations for the Mutual Benefit Society and was on the staff of Provident Hospital. In 1928, he joined the First Separate Company, which was a segregated unit of the Maryland National Guard, and established its medical unit, which he later headed.

Collier wrote that by the 1930s, the city health department was "increasingly aware that the growing 'colored' population was in dire need of better public health services."

The city health department decided to establish several centers around the city and was searching for African-American citizens to direct them.

Williams, who abandoned his private practice for one in public health, returned to Harvard where he earned a master's degree in public health.

"I decided after I observed firsthand the plight of hundreds of my people while working as a part-time health officer with the late Dr. J.H. Mason Knox Jr.," he told The Evening Sun in the 1966 interview.

Williams was appointed director of the Druid Hill Health Center in 1939 when the center at 1313 Druid Hill Ave., which was located in a former five-story orphanage, began accepting its first patients.

He was in charge of a staff of 15 full-time and 20 part-time employees. He oversaw operation of prenatal, venereal disease, well-baby and chest clinics.

During his years at the clinic, Williams was concerned with the high rate of tuberculosis, which was four times that of the city's white population. In 1944, Gov. Herbert R. O'Conor appointed him as the first African-American member to serve on the Maryland Tuberculosis Sanatorium Commission.

Williams, who during his tenure administered more than 10,000 inoculations, said in the 1966 interview that "my main concern has always been for the children of my district," which had 350,000 residents at the time.

In the early 1940s, Williams launched a program that taught prospective mothers the importance of dieting and professional prenatal care.

"Back then," he told The Evening Sun, "many young woman believed in midwife tales and superstitions which had been passed on from one generation to the other."

He added that 20 years later, the program was bearing positive results.

"I rarely see any more skinny, dehydrated, malformed and bowlegged Negro children," Williams said.

By 1949, the number of people visiting the clinic had doubled and the staff grew to 28 while serving thousands of patients a year. Maternal, infant and tuberculosis deaths had been cut in half.

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