Obituary: Helen E. Nash, pioneering pediatrician, 91

Helen E. Nash, MD, professor emerita (clinical) in pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, died Oct. 4, 2012, at Clermont Manor in Creve Coeur. She was 91.

In 1949, Nash was the first African-American physician to join the attending staff at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and the first African-American woman to join the faculty of Washington University School of Medicine.

“I met Helen Nash while serving as a physician in training at St. Louis Children’s Hospital,” said Larry J. Shapiro, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of Washington University School of Medicine. “I learned firsthand that she was an outstanding clinician and a great teacher. She touched the lives of her patients, their families, the students she trained and the colleagues with whom she worked. There are many physicians across the country who are grateful for her wisdom and mentorship. I am one of them.”


Nash served for more than 40 years on the clinical faculty of the medical school and on the attending staff of Children’s Hospital. At the same time, she maintained a thriving private practice at Grand Boulevard and Cass Avenue in the African-American business district.

She was heralded by physicians throughout St. Louis for her commitment to excellence, tireless advocacy on behalf of children and endless enthusiasm for the field of medicine.

“Helen Nash was bigger than life. She was a consummate pediatrician, a mentor to her patients and a stalwart of doing the absolute best for her patients and their families,” said Alan Schwartz, MD, PhD, the Harriet B. Spoehrer Professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the School of Medicine and pediatrician-in-chief at Children’s Hospital. “She set a high bar and spent her life helping patients exceed it. Generations of St. Louisans are all the better for Helen’s presence, engagement and resolve. We miss her deeply.”

With her mentor, Park White, MD, Nash designed special wards for premature infants at Homer G. Phillips Hospital and at Children’s Hospital that included individual bassinets and more strict attention to hygiene and air-conditioning, according to Will Ross, associate dean for diversity and associate professor of medicine.

In 1993, Nash retired from medical practice and soon began serving as the medical school’s dean of minority affairs. During her tenure, she was credited with raising the academic achievements of minority students.

“From Dr. Nash, I learned to never compromise my principles, to elevate those around me so they might reach their fullest potential, and to always give back to the community that gave so much to her,” Ross says. “Her contributions to neonatology and pediatrics, public health and civil rights have made our lives and our community richer. What a life, what a legacy.”

The medical school recognized her lifetime contributions by creating the Dr. Helen E. Nash Academic Achievement Award, given each year to a student who exhibits outstanding qualities of perseverance, determination and enthusiasm.

Born in Atlanta, Nash attended Spelman College before earning a medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., in 1945. Her father graduated from the college in 1910.

She came to St. Louis to train in pediatrics at the old Homer G. Phillips Hospital, the only hospital in St. Louis offering quality specialty training to African-American physicians. There, she became chief resident.

In addition to her faculty appointments at the School of Medicine, Nash also served as pediatric supervisor and associate director of pediatrics at Homer G. Phillips Hospital from 1950 to 1964 and as president of the Children’s Hospital attending staff from 1977 to 1979.

Nash was preceded in death by her husband, James Abernathy. She is survived by a brother, Homer Nash, MD, of Olivette; a sister, Dorothy Shack of Oakland, Calif.; nieces, Cheryl Chisholm, Terrell Mann (Steve), Karen Reynolds (Stanley), Sherry Heard, Lauren Nash Ming (Leo), Dr. Alison Nash (Clarence Dula), and Tracey Nash-Huntley (David Huntley); a nephew, Hailu Shack; friend and caregiver, Ethel Ellis; former office staff members; and a host of other relatives, friends and associates.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 27 at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 5010 Terry Ave., St. Louis.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the St. Louis Symphony, the Missouri Botanical Garden or St. Louis Children’s Hospital Foundation.