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Edith Irby

A Hidden Figure in the History of Medical Education

Gamble, Vanessa Northington MD, PhD

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000002772
Perspective: PDF Only

Edith Irby entered the University of Arkansas School of Medicine in September 1948, becoming the first African American to desegregate a Southern medical school. Seventy years later, she has become a hidden figure in the history of medical education.

The author provides a brief biography of Irby (later Jones) and analyzes the factors that led the University of Arkansas to admit Irby, most notably her scholastic excellence and an innovative legal strategy launched by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to eliminate racial inequalities in graduate and professional education.

Irby’s admission prompted intensified efforts by medical civil rights activists to desegregate all U.S. medical schools. The author concludes that the 70th anniversary of Irby’s groundbreaking accomplishment provides an opportunity to acknowledge her significant contribution to the history of medical education and to recognize the continued need to erase persistent racial inequalities in the physician workforce.

V. Northington Gamble is university professor of medical humanities and professor of health policy and American studies, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Acknowledgments: The author would like to thank Katelynn Vance and Jennifer Gunn for their astute comments in the preparation of this article.

Funding/Support: None reported.

Other disclosures: None reported.

Ethical approval: Reported as not applicable

Previous presentations: An extensive analysis was presented in Gamble VN. “No struggle, no fight, no court battle: The 1948 desegregation of the University of Arkansas School of Medicine. J Hist Med Allied Sci. 2013;68:377-415.

Correspondence should be addressed to Vanessa Northington Gamble, George Washington University, Phillips Hall Suite 412E, 801 22nd Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20052; telephone: 202-994-0978; email:

© 2019 by the Association of American Medical Colleges