Dr. Josephine English was born on December 17, 1920 in Ontario, Virginia, one of four children of Whittie English Sr. and Jennie English. She grew up in Englewood, New Jersey and earned her B.A. from New York City’s Hunter College in 1939. English went on to earn her M.A. in psychology from New York University and subsequently attended Meharry Medical School where she specialized in obstetrics and gynecology. English graduated in 1949 as the first African American woman to practice OB/GYN in New York State. She spent seven years working at Harlem Hospital in Manhattan and she then became the first African American woman to open a private OB/GYN practice in New York State.
In 1956 Dr. English moved to Brooklyn, and in 1958 she opened a women’s clinic on Bushwick Avenue. Over the years she has delivered thousands of babies including the daughter of former Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown and the six daughters of Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X. In 1979 Dr. English established the Adelphi Medical Center in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn to provide yet another medical care facility and shortly afterward included a senior citizen center to further the initiative. In doing such strongly community-oriented work, she earned an unparalleled reputation as an advocate for the health care of New York City’s men and women of color. As Betty Shabazz said, “she has helped so many women and mothers in our lifetime. You were well taken care of if you were pregnant and one of her patients.”
Her work continued in 1980 when in an effort to increase the presence of the arts in the community, she purchased a deserted church next to the Adelphi Medical Center and converted it into The Paul Robeson Theater. Since then the Theater has produced works born of the creativity of community residents and visitors. In 1981 she founded the Up the Ladder Day Care Center and opened a children’s After School Program and Summer Youth Camp. Next, in 1986 Dr. English became the first minority and first woman to be granted a license from the New York State Department of Health to develop a free-standing ambulatory surgical center. Over the years, the Doctor herself has provided funding for much of her own programming. The Brooklyn community has steadfastly supported Dr. English, and she has been honored with several awards including the African Community Contribution Award and a Lucille Mason Rose Community Activist Award. Although she has been retired from practicing medicine since the mid 1990’s, in 1996, Brooklynites formed the Dr. Josephine English Foundation in order to honor her and maintain and continue the pioneering health and welfare initiatives that she has established.
As Dr. English notes, “community is the answer to helping the children and each other. It is community development that is going to change the world. We have to change it for ourselves. We have to make the community work for us and we have to work for the community.”