Shortly before the renowned physician, Dr. Muriel Petioni peacefully passed away at the age of 97 in Harlem, on December 5th, 2011; at her bedside were well known politicians and numerous others who came to pay their respects.
What did she tell them? Aside from expressing her love and gratitude, she asked them to be sure the new geriatric center at Harlem Hospital had a warm atmosphere to make people feel as good as possible about being there. And she wanted assurances the new 146th street Harlem clinic will be well-staffed and have all the equipment it needs.
For Muriel, Harlem was a very special place, long a center of African-American culture. But from the U.S.’s segregated past; it has also been a place of poverty and of longing for a better life.
Muriel was born in Trinidad on January 1st, 1914 to Charles and Rosa Petioni. Rosa was a store clerk and Charles was a journalist and political activist who opposed British colonial rule. In 1917, the British colonial government rid themselves of him by in effect exiling him to Harlem.
For two years, he lived apart from his wife and two daughters, working as a porter, meaning he carried rail passenger luggage, while saving his money to send for his family, who joined him in Harlem in 1919.
While working as a porter, Charles took pre-med classes at City College and then enrolled at historically black Howard University in Washington, DC to attend their medical school. But this meant to become a doctor; he had to be apart from his family. In 1925, at the advanced age of 40, Charles became a doctor and reunited with his family.
A few years later, he resettled his family and his medical practice in a home at 114 West 131st Street in Harlem, a vital medical practice in an impoverished community, as he became one of Harlem’s first black doctors. But he did much more. Because most banks refused to loan money to black people even for home mortgages, Charles co-founded Carver Federal Savings Bank, which today is one of the largest African-American owned U.S. banks.
Muriel followed in her father’s footsteps, graduating from Howard University Medical School. She was the lone woman in her class, did her two year internship at Harlem Hospital and then began her medical practice. In 1942, she and Tuskegee Airman Mal Woolfolk married and in 1947, they had their only child, Charles, proudly named for her father.
Muriel stopped practicing medicine for three years to devote herself to their baby, until 1950 when she started her practice again on the ground floor of their 131st Street home, where her father had had his practice. Meanwhile, Mal became a prominent Harlem attorney. But the couple divorced in the 1970’s and when Muriel died, she was survived by their son and by two granddaughters.
Muriel was an incredible doctor. In the 1950’s she was one of the first black doctors to receive staff privileges at Harlem Hospital, which like most hospitals in the U.S. required black doctors to refer their patients to white doctors to admit them to the hospital. For over 40 years, she practiced medicine tending to thousands of patients, seeing them in her office, in schools, in Harlem Hospital AND she also made house calls.
Over the decades, Muriel was a leader in the fight against heroin, crack and AIDS epidemics. She was also on occasion confronted by gunmen demanding cash and drugs or her prescription pads. But she was never harmed by anyone and she never left Harlem.
In addition to her medical practice, for 30 years Muriel started or joined numerous community groups to promote health care, business investment and better schools. She mentored medical students and in 1974 she started the Susan Smith McKinney Stewart Medical Society to bring together black female doctors. In 1987, Muriel also started the Friends of Harlem Hospital to help raise funding in support of that city owned hospital.
And in the final years of her life, Muriel helped plan Harlem Hospital’s new geriatric wing and she raised support to expand and enhance the Greater Harlem Nursing Home. “I think she was about 89 when she began to focus on the lack of geriatric services,” her son Charles told The New York Times. “She said, ‘You know, I’m starting to understand those old people.’ “