Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias

by Naomi Gledhill from Shropshire in United Kingdom

"Medicine combined the things I loved the most, science and people.” - Dr. Rodriguez-Trias

149194Helen Rodriguez-TriasNational Centre for Biotechnology InformationDr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias was a Puerto Rican physician with an array of accolades, the most notable, perhaps, being the first ever Latina President of the American Public Health Association. She founded the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse in 1970 and later the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse in 1979. She dedicated her working life to advocating for women and children from minority or low-income populations, making her a key figure in revolutionising the healthcare system in the US. 

Born in 1929 in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, Helen Rodriguez-Trias was no stranger to discrimination and prejudice throughout her adolescence. She grew up in New York and Puerto Rico and was often teased by her peers for being Latina.

Despite her impeccable English and good grades, she found herself in the lower sets at school and it was only after one of her teachers advocated for her that she was moved into the higher classes. In 1960, she graduated from the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan with the highest honours and gave birth to her fourth child that same year.

Rodriguez-Trias’ love for medicine was due to the fact it “combined the things [she] loved the most, science and people.” At the very beginning of her career, she founded Puerto Rico’s first infant health clinic, the effect of which became exceedingly evident: in the first three years of its opening, the infant morality rate fell by fifty percent. By 1970, she was heading the paediatric department of Lincoln Hospital and training staff to cater to the needs of Puerto Rican patients.

At the time, the Lincoln Hospital was often criticized for its poor facilities and negligent care. In 1970, an activist group known as the Young Lords Organisation who fought for empowerment of minority, particularly Puerto Rican, communities staged occupations in the hospital, demanding better care for the largely Black and Latino communities being treated in the area.

Rodriguez-Trias was pivotal in finding grounds of agreement between the Young Lords and the hospital staff, understanding that race, gender, and income were all significant factors influencing the quality (and range) of services offered to people at the time.

For instance, a middle-class woman may have had to fight hard for the birth control she needed, but Black and Latina women with lower incomes were often subject to sterilization abuse. In Puerto Rico, between 1938 and 1968, one third of women of childbearing age were sterilized without being made fully aware of its consequences. Although many women agreed to the procedure, most were incorrectly informed that the treatment was reversible.

By 1979, Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias had helped to pass guidelines which ensured that a woman would be fully informed, in a language she could fully understand, and give her written consent. There was also a waiting period implemented between this document being signed by the patient and procedure being carried out.

Throughout the entirety of her career, Rodriguez-Trias advocated for women and children’s rights when it came to healthcare, and this was no different at the height of the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. She directed the New York State’s AIDS institute and co-founded the Women’s Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus of the APHA.

In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded Dr. Rodriguez-Trias the Presidential Citizens Medal before she died later that year. Then as recently as 2019, plans were made to install a statue in her memory in St. Mary’s Park, near the site of the Lincoln Hospital.

Page created on 9/6/2022 5:46:16 PM

Last edited 9/7/2022 4:24:15 PM

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Extra Info

For more information about sterilization abuse in the 1970s, see Women Under Attack: Abortion, Sterilization, Abuse and Reproductive Freedom by Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse linked here:


, . Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias. [Online] Available

Mckiernan-Gonzalez, John. American Latino Theme Study: Science. [Online] Available

, . Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias. [Online] Available

, . July 14: Young Lords Occupy Lincoln Hospital. [Online] Available