Dr. Theodore Kenneth Lawless led one of those lives for which Black History Month was created.
Born in Thibodaux on Dec. 6, 1892, Lawless was world-renowned for his research and treatment of syphilis; Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy; and cancer, despite facing the prejudices of his time.
In his later years, he used his substantial wealth to help others before he died May 1, 1971, at the age of 78.
Margie Scoby, president of the Finding Our Roots African American Museum in Houma, said Lawless’ story is one of many that need to be better-known.
“Many times, African Americans are not put in the forefront or not even talked about,” Scoby said. “Many times, you don’t even hear about them in the schools, so I think it’s very important that we bring it up and celebrate these people because they’ve done wonderful things. … It shows that so many great people have come from the Houma-Thibodaux area.”
Lawless graduated from Talladega College in Alabama 1914 at a time when Jim Crow laws and racial segregation were fully entrenched in the South and racism was prevalent elsewhere in the country. Lawless received his medical degree from Northwestern University in Chicago in 1919 and served in the Medical Corps Reserve during World War I.
Among his accolades were the Harmon Award for Outstanding Work in Medicine in 1929, the American Musical Festival Award in 1949, the Community Service Award of the Chicago Negro Chamber of Commerce and the “Churchman of the Year” award, both in 1952.
In 1954, he received the 39th annual Springarn Medal from the NAACP for pioneering achievements in dermatology.
Lawless’ first two published papers appeared in 1921. One was on warts, the other on sporotrichosis, an fungal infection known as “rose gardener’s disease.”
The Journal of the National Medical Association, the nation’s oldest and largest organization representing African American doctors, wrote that during that time, few Black men and women served as physicians. Lawless, the journal notes, “was merely tolerated and not embraced.”
Despite publishing 10 academic papers between 1921 and 1941, Lawless faced hostility from the scientific community. He graduated from Northwestern’s medical school with two degrees in 1921, but his return to teach at his alma mater was marred by racism.
“A cool atmosphere developed and presently as an instructor of dermatology he was assigned no students,” the journal wrote in July 1970. “Thus he left Northwestern and entered into full-time private practice in which he was instant success.”
Lawless established a thriving clinic in the heart of the Black community of Chicago’s South Side, the Journal of the American Medical Association notes in an April 2018 article.
He also was a staff doctor at Provident Hospital in Chicago, the first African-American-owned-and-operated hospital in the United States.
“Despite facing racism as a student, teacher, and physician at Northwestern University, he welcomed to his office patients from diverse racial and economic backgrounds who were seeking treatment for rare skin disorders,” the article notes. “He provided affordable medical services to all patients regardless of income or socioeconomic class.”
By the 1960s, Ebony Magazine listed Lawless as one of the 35 wealthiest Black men in the United States and in February 1946 featured him on a cover as “The skin wizard of the world.”
Dr. Harold Wendell Thatcher, a former colleague, described Lawless’ generosity in an article published Oct. 11, 1995, by the Chicago Tribune.
“Dr. Lawless was a doctor in the old sense of the word. He dealt in humanity,” Thatcher wrote. “The more people he could see, the more he felt he had accomplished. When doctors were charging $10, $15, he was charging $3.”
Lawless’ practice was six times larger than all of the other Chicago dermatologists’ practices combined, according to the Star magazine, a publication of the National Leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, now the National Hansen’s Disease Museum. The magazine reported that he would serve 450-500 patients weekly, quoting Lawless’ explanation for his busy schedule.
“The more patients I see, the more I learn and the more I can cure,” he is quoted as saying.
Lawless’ fortune continued to grow into the 1950s as he devoted time to other business and philanthropic interests. He served as president of a savings-and-loan company that financed Black-owned businesses and headed a real-estate corporation that built low- cost housing. One of his ventures was Theodore K. Lawless Gardens, a 13-acre, middle-income housing project with 514 apartments in Chicago.
He had a hand in the construction of the Lawless Memorial Chapel at Dillard University in New Orleans; the Lawless Department of Dermatology at Beilinson Hospital in Tel Aviv, Israel; the Lawless Clinical and Research Laboratory in Dermatology of the Hebrew Medical School in Jerusalem; and the Chemical Laboratory and Lecture Auditorium of Roosevelt University in Illinois.
Melisande Short-Colomb, 67, of Washington, D.C., whose mother was Lawless’s first cousin, said in an interview that she was 10 years old the last time she saw him. She attributes his generosity to a family saying.
“Our family is rooted in the belief that when you do good things for people, good things come back to you,” she said.
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