Meet Helen Rodríguez-Trías, pediatrician-turned-healthcare activist

She pushed to end sterilization, legalize abortion, and give poor people access to quality care

Natalie Parletta

Psychology and Nutrition

University of South Australia

Pediatrician Helen Rodríguez-Trías (1929-2001) beat incredible odds to become a champion for underprivileged women and children. Her illustrious career included an appointment as the first Latina president of the American Public Health Association. Labeled "the face of women's health,” a social justice award was named in her honor. Her advocacy for women, children, people with AIDS, and the poor won her the Presidential Citizen's Medal in 2001.

What drove this remarkable woman?

She understood what discrimination felt like

When Rodríguez-Trías was 10 years old, her family moved from Puerto Rico to New York City. Despite good grades and a quick grasp of English, she found herself in a low-performing class. “One day,” she recounted, “I was called upon to recite a poem, and I knew the poem by heart.” The teacher promptly moved her to advanced class. Reflecting on this, she said, “I might have just as well gone down the tubes academically if that teacher hadn’t moved me out of that class.”


Helen Rodriguez Trias

Matteo Farinella

Additionally, her mother, aunts, and sisters endured "many restraints in their struggle to flower and realize their full potential," Rodriguez-Trias said, catalyzing her drive to help women. Her mother, a school teacher, was unable to get a teaching job in New York, because bilingualism was considered a drawback. She took in boarders to pay the rent.

She beat multiple odds to become a doctor

Rodríguez-Trías aspired to study medicine because it “combined the things I loved most, science and people.” But she said this was “almost an impossible dream” in the mainland US, so she attended university back in Puerto Rico. But her studies were hindered by political unrest. She joined a massive student strike which resulted in a two-month university closure. Because of her involvement in a "political movement," her brother refused to continue to help pay her fees. 

After marriage and three children, she finally managed to graduate from medical school in Puerto Rico at 31, just before having her fourth child. She established Puerto Rico's first center for newborn babies during her residency. The newborn death rate there subsequently dropped by 50 percent within three years. Returning to New York in 1970, Rodríguez-Trías became director of Lincoln Hospital's department of pediatrics in the South Bronx. There, she fought for social justice for the low-income, primarily Latino population served by the hospital.

Personal experience drove her to activism

Divorce also transformed Rodríguez-Trías. It moved her to bridge science with personal experience. She said a deceptive marriage “triggered quite a bit of growth in me toward understanding what happens internally to people, what happens in their lives and what they can do or not do.”

Rodríguez-Trías, along with a group of mostly poor women of color, created a movement that promoted equity, economic power, and ending violence against women. She strove to empower women to take charge of their own health, and encouraged more women to enter health professions to impart more compassionate, respectful interactions with patients.

During her internship, Rodríguez-Trías watched a mother of five tragically die from a dodgy abortion. Equally appalling, she knew from her work in Puerto Rico that a third of Puerto Rican women of childbearing age become sterilized. These inequities propelled Rodríguez-Trías to help form committees to establish abortion rights and end sterilization abuse. By the 1970s, these movements helped achieve legalized abortion and federal sterilization guidelines.

"No one is going to have quality of life unless we support everyone's quality of life," she said. What moved her inspired others. Said a fellow activist, "Her legacy continues in our work today as we continue to educate each other and advocate for our right to free, patient-centered healthcare."