Home About Us Media Kit Subscriptions Links Forum

View All Articles

Download PDF










Camps & Sports


Children’s Corner

Collected Features


Cover Stories

Distance Learning


Famous Interviews


Medical Update

Metro Beat

Movies & Theater


Music, Art & Dance

Special Education

Spotlight On Schools

Teachers of the Month


















MAY 2007

Muriel Petioni, M.D., Saves Harlem Hospital From Closing

By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

She opens the door of her sunny Harlem apartment, a wide smile showing off high cheekbones. She’s elegant, slim, dressed in a simple floor-length dashiki. With a laugh she continues to adjust her earrings, as she graciously escorts a visitor to a comfortable chair, facing a wall of African masks. Dr. Muriel Petioni, called several years ago “the mother of medicine in Harlem,” is 93 years old. Her voice is strong, her memory infallible, her movements fluid, her articulation flawless, her delivery frank (she likes to be “direct, but always courteous”). At Barnard College’s commencement this month she will receive the Barnard Medal of Distinction. There have been honors before, there could easily be dozens more, for Dr. Petioni has been for well over half a century a leading voice at and for Harlem Hospital, where she served her own internship and developed a mentoring program for black women doctors. She is still active in the Central Harlem and East Harlem community, where she served for 30 years as a school physician for the NYC Department of Health. She is currently the chair and founder of Friends of Harlem Hospital Center, founded a little over 20 years ago at the hospital’s 100th Anniversary Celebration, and where, within a decade of galas and outreach, she helped garner support from the hospital’s “endless friends,” in and out of the community, and put it back on the PR map. Dr. Petioni also sits on the board of the Harlem Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, and, at the urging of friends and colleagues, is planning to commit her extraordinary life story to print. And what a story it is.

Born in Trinidad but coming with her parents to this country when she was five, she has always lived in Harlem. Her father was a well revered doctor, and at age eleven, she started accompanying him on rounds, watching him compassionately treat his patients, many of whom couldn’t afford to pay. She came to the inevitable conclusion that she, too, would be a doctor. He encouraged her and her two siblings to be independent. Women, then, who aspired to be professionals typically went into teaching, nursing or law. Muriel Petioni started college at NYU but switched in her junior year, at her father’s suggestion, to Howard University because he wisely concluded it would be a good move when she applied to its medical school. At that time, and for a long time after, well into the `50s, Howard and Meharry, historically black colleges, were the medical schools to attend, most institutions (except for Harvard) opening up only late in the wake of affirmative action.

She loved studying, and though she speaks passionately about the burdens faced by blacks, she recognized that at Howard and later at Harlem Hospital, she was given an opportunity to study with first-rate medical professionals, including the pioneering Harvard-educated surgeon, Dr. Louis T. Wright, the first black to integrate then-white Harlem Hospital, and Dr. Charles Drew, her teacher in pathology, who made his international mark by developing improved techniques for blood transfusions and storage. Both men, fervent, life-long opponents of racial segregation, were important influences in her life. She married, a Tuskegee Airman, and for a while was a housewife and mother, but soon returned to her practice, which included a special interest in ob/gyn, seeing patients in the very same office her father used and remaining there for 40 years.

She is often asked to talk about differences between then and now—for blacks, for women, for doctors, and she never misses a beat in answering. Until 1920, major hospitals did not admit blacks for training; after that, quotas were set. She speaks movingly of the “lonely and horrific” existence of lone blacks who found themselves isolated in white universities. She, herself, had no difficulties. It was a time when serving in a clinic was the thing to do, the way blacks in particular got post-graduate training and really learned their profession. In 1974 she founded the Susan Smith McKinney Steward Medical Society for Women in the greater NY area, and became an active member of the coalition of 100 Black Women. At the center of all her interests, however, has been, and is, 123-year old Harlem Hospital, where she served for so many years and which she continues to champion. She knows, of course, that many of the doctors who come to the hospital do so from India, from the University of West Indies and from some African countries. At Harlem Hospital, they all get “a world-class education.” She beams when she says that what was true then is still true today: “I never once not wanted to get up and go to work.” They truly don’t make `em like Muriel Petioni anymore!#



Show email





Education Update, Inc.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2009.