Kenneth C. Edelin, renowned physician, pioneer, activist and fighter for the health care rights of women and the disadvantaged died on Dec. 30 after a year-long battle with cancer. A seasonal resident of Oak Bluufs, Dr. Edelin died in Sarasota, Fla. where he resided with his wife, Barbara, after retiring from a long and distinguished career. He leaves a legacy that altered the landscape for generations of women and physicians who continue to fight for justice for women’s health.
Dr. Edelin, known as a compassionate and scholarly physician, practiced medicine for nearly 40 years until his retirement in 2006. He began his career as a surgeon at Boston City Hospital, where he received his specialty training in Obstetrics and Gynecology and was the first African American to become chief resident in the history of the department. Just five years after completing his residency, he was appointed chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Boston University School of Medicine. He held this position for over a decade during which time he also served as director of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Boston City Hospital and Gynecologist-in-Chief at Boston University Hospital.
In 1989 he retired from his role as chairman to become the associate dean for student and minority affairs at Boston University School of Medicine, and in later years took on the added role of director of the Early Medical School Selection Program. During these later years, Dr. Edelin was responsible for dramatically expanding access to medical school for hundreds of aspiring minority students from around the country and the Caribbean. Through his passionate commitment to this mission, he made a dramatic impact on the number of minority medical students attending and completing medical school at Boston University.
Dr. Edelin devoted his life to the fight for legal, social and health care justice for women, minorities and others who lacked access to equal opportunity. This fight began early in his career. Just 15 months following the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, while working as chief resident in obstetrics at Boston City Hospital, Dr. Edelin was indicted and ultimately convicted of manslaughter for the death of a fetus from a legal and safe abortion. The trial, his conviction and his subsequent exoneration by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts triggered a renewed national debate about a woman’s right to choose, the plight of poor, minority women in seeking care when needed and the role of a woman’s physician in supporting her decision and right to choose. In 2007, Dr. Edelin chronicled the injustice of his experience and the struggle for a woman’s right to choose in his autobiography Broken Justice: A True Story of Race, Sex, and Revenge in a Boston Courtroom. The widely acclaimed book received the Bronze medal in non-fiction by the Independent Book Publishers.
The fight that began in a Boston courtroom as he stood for the rights of low-income women would be the beginning of a lifelong journey and mission that manifested itself in his professional and civic endeavors and his influence on the national stage. In his role as Chairman of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the nation’s largest private family planning agency, he led the organization through one of its most turbulent times, standing in defense of the organization’s philosophy, practices and services for women. He was a member of the board of the Alan Guttmacher Institute and a 30-year member of the national board of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He served on the Boston Public Health Commission, was chairman of the Committee on Health Care for Underserved Women of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and was a member of the Committee on Ethics and Discipline of the Massachusetts Medical Society. Upon moving to Florida, Dr. Edelin joined the board of the Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. He was inducted into the medical honor society, Alpha Omega Alpha and is an emeritus member of the Boston Chapter of National Guardsmen.
Dr. Edelin was born in Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1939 to Benedict Edelin and Ruby Goodwin. After completing eight years in the Washington, D.C., public schools, he moved to Massachusetts to complete his high school education at the private Stockbridge School. He went on to attend and graduate from Columbia University in 1961 and then attended Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., where he earned his medical degree in 1967 and was a founding member of the Student National Medical Association. Following medical school he served a tour of duty in the United States Air Force before returning once again to Massachusetts to begin his specialty training in obstetrics and gynecology at Boston City Hospital.
Dr. Edelin published widely in his field with a special emphasis on teen pregnancy and prevention and substance abuse during pregnancy. He has received national recognition for his leadership and advocacy, including receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Medical Association, the Good Guy Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Margaret Sanger Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and was named one of America’s Leading Black Doctors by Black Enterprise magazine.
He lived a life devoted to serving others, but at the center of his life was his family and his role as a devoted and loving husband, father, grandfather and family member. Dr. Edelin and his wife spent their honeymoon on the Vineyard.
“Basically, we started our life off together on the Vineyard,” said Mrs. Edelin. Throughout 35 years of marriage, the Edelins returned to the Island each summer, and in 2006, bought a home off Barnes Road in Oak Bluffs, and began to split the year between the Island and Sarasota, Fla.
“The Vineyard is a very special place; a place where we could leave the city and just enjoy the comforts of that life,” Mrs. Edelin said. “It was our place in the sun.”
Dr. Edelin was especially fond of sunsets, which he enjoyed from East Chop Lighthouse.
“He was definitely a sunset person,” his wife said. He also loved to play golf at Farm Neck and Mink Meadows, and spent many an evening out at wonderful restaurants in the company of good friends. In 2007, he presented his book Broken Justice to an audience at the Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs.
In addition to his wife of 35 years, he is survived by his four children, Kenneth Edelin Jr., Kimberley Edelin Freeman, Joseph Edelin and Corinne Edelin; eight grandchildren, Kendall, Clyde, Kenneth 3rd, Caleb, Kimberley, Kayla, Christian and Cheyenne; his brother, Milton Edelin and sister Norma Johnson; nephews, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh C. Johnson, Greg Edelin, and Ranah Edelin and niece, Marguerite Johnson Crocker; his aunts Francis Gaskins, Beatrice Jackson and Martha Holmes, and a host of extended family and friends from coast to coast.
A memorial service will be held in Boston. Details will be announced at a later date. The family has requested that donations in memory of Dr. Kenneth C. Edelin may be made to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or the Kenneth C. Edelin Scholarship Fund at Boston University School of Medicine.