clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Dr. Agnes Lattimer, dead at 89, lauded as 1st black woman to head major hospital

Dr. Agnes Lattimer at her retirement party with her grand-nephew Cedric Hudson. | Facebook

Dr. Agnes D. Lattimer was so focused on her goals that “she could fly solo in a plane before she could solo on a bicycle,” her sister said.

After graduating in 1954 from Chicago Medical School — one of the first black women to do so — Dr. Lattimer went on to become the first African American woman medical director, in 1986, at the old Cook County Hospital, now known as Stroger Hospital.

According to Jet magazine, she was the first black woman in the nation to head a major hospital.

Dr. Agnes Lattimer was one of the first African-American women to graduate from the Chicago Medical School and the first African-American woman to be medical director at the old Cook County Hospital. | Provided photo
Dr. Agnes Lattimer was one of the first African-American women to graduate from the Chicago Medical School and the first African-American woman to be medical director at the old Cook County Hospital. | Provided photo

“A legend in medicine in Chicago,” Dr. David Ansell, a senior vice president at Rush University Medical Center, called her. “She became the medical director of Cook County Hospital when few women anywhere in the U.S. were allowed access to leadership positions.”

A pediatrician and public health expert, Dr. Lattimer died of cancer Jan. 9 at her South Side home. She was 89.

She commanded respect and gave it, treating patients living in poverty with the same empathy she showed rich people.

During her training, some white patients wouldn’t let her touch them, according to her sister Camille Lattimer, and that was a problem for her because, “if she wasn’t able to examine a patient, she couldn’t get a grade.”

The other medical students — all white — “just refused to see the patients,” her sister said. “If she didn’t see them, no one would.”

“Her colleagues refused to treat anybody,” said Martha Kelly Bates, executive director of alumni relations at Rosalind Franklin University, home to Chicago Medical School.

The attending physicians convinced the white patients they’d have to see her.

Dr. Agnes Lattimer’s graduation photo from the Chicago Medical School in 1954. | Provided photo
Dr. Agnes Lattimer’s graduation photo from the Chicago Medical School in 1954. | Provided photo

In her early days at privately owned Michael Reese Hospital, “She observed that the senior attending physician very politely asked the female patient if she would allow them to examine her,” according to her biography at the U.S. National Library of Medicine. But at public Cook County Hospital, “The same physician brusquely pulled back the curtain on a female patient, opened her gown and told the students to feel her breast.

“I silently vowed,” Dr. Lattimer said, “that if I were ever in the position to change any one thing, I would begin by changing the negative and patronizing attitudes so prevailing among health-care workers.”

Young Agnes grew up in Memphis. Her mother Hortense was a teacher. Her father Arthur had an insurance company. Despite the Great Depression, the Lattimer children were always beautifully turned-out. A talented seamstress, their mom created stylish outfits for them from scraps left over from clothing she sewed for others.

When Agnes broke an arm at 6, her family doctor’s kindness inspired her to want to be a doctor, Camille Lattimer said.

She was always driven. Playing school with her younger siblings, Agnes would “go on and on about being good students,” said her niece Thelma Balfour.

She was valedictorian of Booker T. Washington High School and got a full scholarship to Fisk University for her bachelor’s degree in biology. She moved to Chicago and worked 18 months as a housekeeper to save for med school.

In addition to being the only African American in a class of 69 at Chicago Medical School, she was one of just two women. Some doctors told the women they were taking slots that rightfully belonged to men.

“She was a beautiful, black lady who chose to go to medical school, which was all-white and all-male” then, said Dr. Herbert Lerner, 94, a retired Hyde Park pediatrician. “Agnes struck me as a person who wanted to learn everything and do everything. She eventually learned how to fly and got her pilot’s license. She was a very good doctor.”

Dr. Agnes Lattimer. | Provided photo
Dr. Agnes Lattimer. | Provided photo

Dr. Lattimer went on to teach at the University of Illinois and Chicago Medical School and had a pediatric practice on the West Side.

In nine years as medical director at Cook County, she oversaw safeguards to protect patients and staffers during the early days of AIDS. She testified in Washington, D.C., on the need to fight hunger and urged City Hall to crack down on owners of buildings with flaking lead paint when she chaired the Chicago Committee Against Lead Poisoning.

And she was proud of instituting a “Totline” at now-closed Michael Reese so poor parents could call nurses around the clock about their children’s health.

Her marriage to artist Bernard Goss ended in divorce. In 1971, she married Frank Bethel, an electrical engineer who died several years later.

In 1966, she achieved her dream of earning a pilot’s license. “She loved the ability to fly to another county or city for lunch or dinner,” her niece said.

Other survivors include her grandson Bernard Goss III, nieces Holly Jones and Sandra Love and a nephew, Keith Jones. Her son Bernard Goss Jr. died in 1996. Services have been held.