THELMA ADELE PATTEN LAW, Houston’s first African American female physician, was born on December 30, 1900, in Huntsville, Texas, to Mason B. Patten and Pauline (Garza) Patten. Thelma’s parents were prominent community leaders in Houston. Her father was a railway mail clerk and founding member of the NAACP Houston chapter, and her mother was an educator.
Patten was valedictorian of Colored High School (renamed Booker T. Washington High School) of Houston when she graduated in 1917. After graduating from Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1923, Patten interned at Freedmen’s Hospital from 1923 to 1924. She then returned to Houston and joined other black physicians who served the 30,000 African American citizens of the city when she set up practice in 1924.
In 1931 she married James H. Law, an educator, and they lived near Texas Southern University in the Third Ward in a “beautiful white cottage” where many social events were held. They had a daughter, Pauline Anna.
Dr. Thelma Patten Law, whose specialty was obstetrics and gynecology, offered female patients prenatal care and the opportunity to have babies in a hospital attended by a physician, many for the first time. She delivered hundreds of babies at the Houston Negro Hospital (later known as Riverside General Hospital) after it opened in 1927. Perhaps the most famous of her babies was Barbara Jordan, who rose to become a United States congresswoman.
Law was a member of the Lone Star State Medical Association, the Houston Medical Forum, American Medical Women’s International Association, and the Texas State Tuberculosis Association (for which she also had served as director). In 1955 she became the first African American woman to gain admission into the Harris County Medical Society. She was also a member of the Planned Parenthood Center (which began as the Maternal Health Center) for more than 25 years and a board member of the City of Houston Board of Health.
Law led a very active social life and was cofounder and first president of the Houston chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority in 1927. In 1951 Law was a cofounder of the Houston chapter of Links, Incorporated, a national organization created to “link” friendships and resources to help improve the quality of life for disadvantaged African Americans.
Thelma Patten Law was an active member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and a devoted patron of the Blue Triangle branch of the YWCA. She and others hosted numerous teas, dances and other social events to raise money for local underprivileged families. In 1962 she was honored as “Woman of the Year” by the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority.
Law died on November 12, 1968, and was buried alongside her husband at Paradise North Cemetery in Houston.