Target Health Blog

Helen Rodriquez Trias MD (1929 - 2001)

July 16, 2018

Women's Health

Helen Rodriquez Trias MD: By National Center for Biotechnology Information -, Public Domain,

Helen Rodriquez Trias (July 7, 1929 - December 27, 2001) was a pediatrician, educator and women's rights activist. She was the first Latina president of the American Public Health Association, a founding member of the Women's Caucus of the American Public Health Association, and a recipient of the Presidential Citizens Medal. She is credited with helping to expand the range of public health services for women and children in minority and low-income populations around the world. Rodriquez Trias's parents moved to New York City from Puerto Rico in the early part of the 20th century. After her birth, her family returned to Puerto Rico only to return to New York in 1939. In New York, Rodriquez Trias experienced racism and discrimination. In school, she was placed in a class with students who were academically handicapped, even though she had good grades and knew how to speak English. After she participated in a poem recital, her teacher realized that she was a gifted child and sent her to a class with gifted children.

 Rodriquez Trias's mother was a school teacher in Puerto Rico. However, in New York she was unable to get a teacher's license. Therefore, her mother had to take in boarders to meet her financial needs and pay the rent. After Rodriquez Trias graduated from high school, she decided she would like to study medicine and that her chances would be much better in Puerto Rico because the island had a good scholarship system. In 1948, she began her academic education at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. The university had a very strong independence movement and Rodriquez Trias became involved with the student faction of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. Nationalist leader Don Pedro Albizu Campos was invited to speak by the student council; however, the chancellor of the university, Jaime Rexach Ben?tez, did not permit Albizu access to the campus. The students consequently went on strike, with Rodriquez Trias amongst them, but her brother did not approve of this. He threatened to cut off her college expenses and she returned to New York. 

In New York, she married and had three children before she decided to return to Puerto Rico to pursue her degree. At the University of Puerto Rico, she became a student activist on issues such as freedom of speech and Puerto Rican independence. She earned her BA degree in 1957 and entered UPR's school of medicine. She earned her medical degree in 1960 and soon after gave birth to her fourth child. During her residency at the University Hospital in San Juan, she established the first center for the care of newborn babies in Puerto Rico. The hospital's death rate for newborns decreased 50% within three years. She established her medical practice in the field of pediatrics in the island after completing her residency. Rodriquez Trias headed the department of pediatrics at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. At Lincoln Hospital, Rodriquez Trias lobbied to give all workers a voice in administrative and patient-care issues. She became involved with the Puerto Rican community and encouraged the health care workers at the hospital to become aware of the cultural issues and needs of the community. Rodriquez Trias was also an associate professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University, and later taught at Columbia and Fordham universities.

During her years in Puerto Rico, Rodriquez Trias became aware that unsuspecting Puerto Rican women were being sterilized and that the United States was using Puerto Rico as a laboratory for the development of birth control technology. In 1970, she was a founding member of Committee to End Sterilization Abuse and in 1971 a founding member of the Women's Caucus of the American Public Health Association. She supported abortion rights, fought for the abolishment of enforced sterilization, and sought neonatal care for underserved people. In 1979, she became a founding member of the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse and testified before the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for passage of federal sterilization guidelines. The guidelines, which she drafted, required a woman's written consent to sterilization in a language they could understand, and set a waiting period between the consent and the sterilization procedure. She is credited with helping to expand the range of public health services for women and children in minority and low-income populations in the United States, Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

In the 1980s, Rodriquez Trias served as medical director of the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute. She worked on behalf of women from minority groups who were infected with HIV. In the 1990s, she served as health co-director of the Pacific Institute for Women's Health, a nonprofit research and advocacy group dedicated to improving women's well-being worldwide and focused on reproduction. She was a founding member of both the Women's Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus of the American Public Health Association and the first Latina to serve as the president of the APHA. 

On January 8, 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded Rodriquez Trias with the Presidential Citizen's Medal, the second-highest civilian award in the United States, for her work on behalf of women, children, people with HIV and AIDS, and the poor. Later that year, on December 27, Rodriquez Trias died, a victim of cancer.

On July 7, 2018, which would have been Rodriquez Trias' 89th birthday, Google featured her in a Google Doodle in the United States.

Presidential Citizens Medal: Photo credit: U.S. Government; Wikipedia Commons: Graphic Lab/Illustration workshop/Archive/2015

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