Thelma Patten Law, M.D.

Planned Parenthood of Houston began in 1936 as the Maternal Health Center. By 1938/39, Dr. Thelma Patten, one of the first black female Obstetrician/Gynecologists in the state was serving the black community at Planned Parenthood, and did so for more than twenty-five years.

Patten was born in Huntsville, Texas, graduated from high school in Houston,  received her medical degree from Howard University, completed an internship at Washington D.C.’s Freedmen’s Hospital, and began practicing medicine in Houston in 1924. She was the first black woman to start her own medical practice in Houston. Additionally, Dr. Patten was the first black female physician admitted to membership in the Harris County Medical Society in 1955.  She was a member of the City Health Board, Houston Medical Forum, the Texas State Tuberculosis Board, the Texas Medical Association, and the American Medical Association.  Besides serving on the staff of the Maternal Health Center, she worked as an OB/GYN on the staffs of St. Elizabeth’s and Riverside General hospitals. 

A leader in the black community for decades, she was one of the charter members and the first President of Delta Sigma Theta sorority in 1927, now known as Houston Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta. For many poor blacks, her services represented the only primary healthcare they received. The late U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s maternal grandfather John Ed was a relative of Dr. Patten, and when it came time for Jordan’s mother Arlyne to give birth to Barbara, Patten delivered her at home.

Dr. Abner Berg, a Houston obstetrician who worked part-time at the Maternal Health Center from 1937 until 1941, remembers the pioneering work of Dr. Patten among Houston’s poor.  “I worked with her in the late ’30s and early ’40s at Houston’s Negro Hospital in the Third Ward,” he said.  “That was before desegregation.  It was a two or three-story building—a horrible place.  There were two black doctors—women—in Houston at this time, and that’s where they had their private practices, where they served only blacks.  Everyone else in private practice at that time had two reception rooms, you see: one for black, one for white.”

Dr. Patten Law died in Houston on November 12, 1968, and is buried at Paradise North Cemetery. Dr. Patten was married to Wheatley High School coach James Law, of which HISD's Law Elementary school is named. He died in June of 1966.  Dr. Patten-Law left behind one step-son, James, and a daughter, Pauline Anna. Pauline Anna died a month after her mother, and was buried at Paradise North (gravesite pictures) on December 11, 1968.

View a timeline of Dr. Patten's life.

A written history of Dr. Patten.

As I collect articles, pictures, and oral histories, they will be posted on the recognition page. If you have something to add, please contact me at

This research was undertaken as a Rice University Capstone Project for Larissa Lindsay’s MLS degree.

Dr. Patten's niece has a wonderful collection of family pictures and history on her blog