Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
Kenneth Edelin’s former students, fellow medical faculty, and many who had joined him on the front lines of the ongoing battle for women’s reproductive freedoms and civil rights filled Marsh Chapel on January 25 for a memorial service—complete with a jazz trio playing Marvin Gaye. The service was orchestrated by the School of Medicine professor in the weeks before his death, at 74, from cancer on December 30, 2013.
Edelin’s was a life “uniquely, powerfully lived,” said Reverend Liz Walker, a former WBZ-TV news anchor, who officiated along with Marsh Chapel Dean Robert A. Hill.
Chairman of the MED department of obstetrics and gynecology from 1978 to 1989, Edelin went on to become MED associate dean for student and minority affairs. He had served as chairman of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and was a 30-year board member of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“His compassion for people was vivid, tangible, and personal,” Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick told mourners, describing Edelin as “a crusader against health disparities and a mentor to a generation of doctors.”
Among the hundreds gathered to pay their respects was a group of young MED graduates who wore their red ties and white jackets as a show of respect for the man who “opened his home to all of us” and was “the epitome of a mentor, student advocate, and friend,” said Robert Rusher (MED’04), now a pulmonary specialist at Kaiser Permanente. “We wear this white coat, and for most of us he was the sole reason.”
Edelin became the first African American chief OB/GYN resident at Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center) in 1973, the year of the US Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision upholding a woman’s right to choose abortion. He was thrust into the national spotlight 15 months later during a high-profile Boston manslaughter trial in the death of a fetus during a legal abortion. He was convicted and sentenced to a year’s probation, but kept his medical license and was later exonerated. The battle fortified his lifelong dedication to the fight for social and health care justice, a fight poignantly recounted in his 2008 memoir Broken Justice: A True Story of Race, Sex, and Revenge in a Boston Courtroom.
During Edelin’s years at MED, he was also managing director of the Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Center. He “wasn’t just a doctor, he was a crusader, who devoted his entire life to women’s health,” said Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood Federation president.
Richards shared a written tribute from Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms. magazine, which had covered Edelin’s Boston trial. “I had never met a better person or a worse injustice,” Steinem wrote. She recalled that Edelin, recipient of Planned Parenthood’s 2007 Margaret Sanger Award, whose 1966 honoree was Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59), always said “reproductive rights and civil rights are intertwined.”
His decision to become “a women’s doctor,” Edelin recounted in his memoir, was born out of the painful experience at age 12 of watching his 46-year old mother succumb slowly to breast cancer. Saved “from the dangers of the streets of segregated Washington, D.C.,” when he received a full scholarship to the progressive Stockbridge School in the Berkshires, Edelin went on to college at Columbia and earned a medical degree in 1967 at Meharry Medical College.
Edelin’s legal battle strengthened his commitment to a woman’s right to access to legal abortion and made him “a folk hero” in clinics across the nation, said Sherrilyn Ifill, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund president and director-counsel.
David Acker, a Harvard Medical School associate professor of OB/GYN, first met Edelin in 1979 when he did a fellowship at Boston City Hospital, where Edelin was director of obstetrics and gynecology. “He was a chairman who actually cared about the patients,” said Acker, recalling that while Edelin forgave lapses on the more arcane points in his charges’ medical knowledge, “it was never okay to treat patients disrespectfully.” He “taught us not to ignore the little things,” and to be aware of the social and economic hardships that played a role in a patient’s condition.
Acker remembered standing with Edelin by his office window, when Edelin noticed a group of residents removing their ties as they walked from the neighboring private hospital to Boston City Hospital. “You tell them,” he instructed Acker, “that if they wear a tie at the university hospital, they’ll wear a tie at BCH.”
Edelin, retired from teaching since 2006, was also a poet, whose zest for living and devotion to service resound through his verse. In his final poem, “The Labyrinth of Life,” written shortly before his death, he implores the reader not to “give in to loser’s talk” and not to be “paralyzed by fright.” He concludes: “The journey’s course will set you free / This journey is your life, you see.”