Who Was Helen Rodriguez-Trias?

Who Was Helen Rodriguez-Trias?

Who Was Helen Rodriguez-Trias?

Helen RodríGuez TríAs: (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 (APHA), a founding member of the Women’s Caucus of the APHA, 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.


Helen RodríGuez TríAs Education

Rodríguez Trías headed the department of pediatrics at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. At Lincoln Hospital, Rodríguez Trías 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. Rodríguez Trías was also an associate professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University, and later taught at Columbia and Fordham universities.

Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trias

Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias wanted to study medicine because it combined the things she loved the most—science and people. She graduated from the University of Puerto Rico in 1959 and moved to New York, where she married and had three children. After seven years, she returned to the University of Puerto Rico to study medicine. She saw it as a direct way to contribute to society—by helping individuals instead of working through groups or organizations. She received an M.D. with the highest honors in 1960. During her residency, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias established the first center in Puerto Rico for the care of newborn babies. Under her direction, the hospital’s death rate for newborns decreased 50 percent within three years. In 1970, she returned to New York City to serve the Puerto Rican community in the South Bronx. Working at Lincoln Hospital, she led community campaigns against lead paint, unprotected windows, and other health hazards. She also taught at City College, raising students’ awareness of the real conditions in the neighborhoods they served. Dr. Rodriguez-Trias saw the critical links between public health and social and political rights and expanded her work to a broader international community. She said, “I think my sense of what was happening to people’s health… was that it was really determined by what was happening in society— by the degree of poverty and inequality you had.” Working as an advocate for women’s reproductive rights, she campaigned for change at a policy level.

Helen Rodriguez-Trias
Helen Rodriguez-Trias

She worked especially for low-income populations in the United States, Central, and South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. She fought for reproductive rights, worked with women with HIV, and joined the effort to stop sterilization abuse. Government-sponsored sterilization programs led to hundreds of unwanted sterilizations. (Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias) “Sterilization has been pushed really internationally as a way of population control. And there is a difference between population control and birth control. Birth control exists as an individual right. It’s something that should be built into health programming. It should be part and parcel of choices that people have. And when birth control is really carried out, people are given information, and the facility to use different kinds of modalities of birth control. While population control is really a social policy that’s instituted with the thought in mind that there are some people who should not have children or should have very few children if any at all.

I was working in Puerto Rico in the medical school in those years, the decade of 1960 to 1970. And one of the things that seemed pretty obvious to us then was that Puerto Rico was being used as a laboratory. And it was being used as a laboratory for the development of birth control technology.” In 1979, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias testified before the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for the passage of federal sterilization guidelines, which she helped to draft. These require a woman’s consent to sterilization, offered in a language she can understand, and set a waiting period between the consent and the operation. Toward the end of her life, she said, “I hope I’ll see in my lifetime a growing realization that we are one world. And that no one is going to have the quality of life unless we support everyone’s quality of life. Not on the basis of do-goodism, but because of a real commitment. It’s our collective and personal health that’s at stake.” In 2001, President Clinton presented her with a Presidential Citizen’s Medal for her work on behalf of women, children, people with HIV and AIDS, and the poor. Later that year, Helen Rodriguez-Trias died of complications from cancer.

Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trias Quotes

Google is wishing a happy 89th birthday to public health pioneer Helen Rodríguez Trías with its July 7 Doodle.

Trías, who died in 2001, was born in New York City on this day in 1929. She spent her early childhood years in Puerto Rico, and the island and its people would remain significant throughout her life.

Trías completed both her undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Puerto Rico, securing her medical degree in 1960. During her residency — and while raising four children — Trías established Puerto Rico’s first care center for newborn babies, halving her hospital’s infant death rate in three years, according to the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Changing the Face of Medicine project.

A decade after graduating, Trías returned to New York City and threw herself into work at Lincoln Hospital, which served largely low-income Puerto Rican patients in the South Bronx. There, she headed the department of pediatrics and eventually developed a passion for improving women’s health and abortion rights.

Helen RodríGuez TríAs Cause Of Death

On January 8, 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded Rodríguez Trías 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 poor people. Later that year, on December 27, Rodríguez Trías died of cancer.

On July 7, 2018, which would have been Rodríguez Trías’ 89th birthday, Google featured her in a Google Doodle in the United States. In 2019, Chirlane McCray announced that New York City would build a statue honoring Rodríguez Trías in St. Mary’s Park, near Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx.

Helen Rodriguez Trias EducacióN

She was born in New York City, to parents who had emigrated from Puerto Rico. Growing up a Puerto Rican in the city, she said she experienced racism first-hand.

After graduating from school, she went on to study for a degree in Puerto Rico, where she became active in the Puerto Rican independence movement. She later re-enroll at the university to study medicine, graduating with the highest honors in 1960, and that year also gave birth to her fourth child. During her residency, she established Puerto Rico’s first center for newborn babies, reducing child mortality rates by half within three years.

Returning to New York in 1970, Rodríguez-Trías became director of Lincoln Hospital’s department of pediatrics in the South Bronx, fighting for the healthcare rights of the neighborhood’s deprived residents.

Inspired by “the experiences of my own mother, my aunts, and sisters, who faced so many restraints in their struggle to flower and reach their own potential,” she campaigned for women’s health rights throughout the 1970s. She believed that political and social rights and public health issues were inexorably linked.

“I think my sense of what was happening to people’s health,” she explained, “was that it was really determined by what was happening in society— by the degree of poverty and inequality you had.” Among the issues, she helped raise public attention and was sterilization abuse, with nearly a third of child-bearing women in Puerto Rico sterilized without being informed of the consequences between 1938 and 1968.

She founded both the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse and the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse, successfully campaigning for federal legislation requiring women’s written consent and the waiting period between the consent and the sterilization procedure. The laws are still in place today.


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