WASHINGTON — Edith Irby Jones, who would grow up to be a pioneering black doctor, was a young girl in rural Arkansas when she lost a sister to typhoid fever in the 1930s.
‘‘The children who were able to have medical care would live,’’ Ms. Jones told an interviewer years later. ‘‘I saw the doctor going in and out of their homes. Although it may not be true, I felt that if I had been a physician, or if there had been physicians available, or we had adequate money, that a physician would have come to us.’’
Amid the tragedy of her sister’s death, and perhaps unaware of the obstacles she would face, she vowed to become a doctor — but a ‘‘different kind of doctor,’’ she said.
‘‘Money wasn’t going to make any difference with me,’’ Ms. Jones told a historian with the University of Arkansas Libraries. ‘‘And so I have spent my lifetime trying to live out a childhood dream.’’
Ms. Jones, who was the first black student to matriculate at a previously all-white medical school when she enrolled in 1948 at what is now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, died Monday at her home in Houston. She was 91.
Ms. Jones spent most of her career in Houston, where she ran an internal medicine practice in the city’s predominantly black Third Ward and sometimes accepted eggs and vegetables as payment, according to the Houston Chronicle. She became nationally recognized for her efforts to improve medical care for the needy and to open the medical profession to African Americans.
Edith Irby grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Her father managed to provide a comfortable living for the family as a sharecropper, she said, but he was killed in an accident when she was about 7 years old.
Her sister died shortly thereafter, and Ms. Jones came down with a debilitating case of rheumatic fever. When poor health prevented her mother from working, Ms. Jones supported the family by caring for a doctor’s son for $2.50 a week. The boy’s grandmother encouraged her in her education, Ms. Jones told the Houston Chronicle, and built her confidence.
She credited a high school teacher with helping her obtain a scholarship to attend the historically black Knoxville College in Tennessee, from which she graduated in 1948.
According to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, there were 6,500 medical students in the United States when Ms. Jones enrolled in 1948. Of those, 185 were black, and most were studying at historically black colleges. The board of trustees voted to increase Ms. Jones’s class size by one — lest anyone complain that she had taken a spot from a white student.
She was subjected to the indignities of Jim Crow, but she recalled that her white classmates often sought to lessen them. They stood with her on buses at a time when blacks were forced to give up their seats to white passengers.
Ms. Jones was the first female president of the National Medical Association, a group founded for black professionals when the American Medical Association was open only to whites. She consulted on health care, particularly for the poor, around the world.
‘‘We give little when we give only our material possessions. It is when we give of ourselves that we truly give — the long, challenging hours with patients who can pay and those who cannot pay,’’ she said, according to the National Library of Medicine.