Barbara Barlow was the first woman to train in pediatric surgery at Babies Hospital, Columbia University Medical Center (now called Babies' and Children's Hospital of New York). By researching and documenting the causes of injuries to children in Harlem, and increasing public education about their prevention, she has helped to dramatically reduce accidents and injuries to inner-city children in New York and throughout the United States.
Born in 1938, Barlow grew up in rural Lancaster Pennsylvania, where she still spends many weekends. She has had a lifelong desire to care for children in need. Her father, who believed that she would some day have a career in medicine, died when she was sixteen and her younger sister was eleven. To support her daughters, her mother returned to school for a degree in psychology and became a guidance counselor and assistant professor of psychology. By her mother's example, Barlow came to believe that with hard work, she could achieve anything.
After studying psychology on a scholarship at Vassar College, Barlow earned her M.D. degree in 1967 from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. The director of pediatric surgery there helped Barlow obtain a training fellowship at Babies Hospital Columbia University Medical Center (now called Babies' and Children's Hospital of New York). She became the first woman to train in pediatric surgery at Babies Hospital.
Barlow changed her plan to become a medical missionary abroad when she did a surgical residency in the Bronx and noticed a critical need for pediatric medical services there. "I wanted to provide poor children with the same quality of care that middle-class children received," she said.
One of the first things Barlow noticed when she came to Harlem was the high rate of admissions of children suffering from preventable injuries. With a colleague, she compiled data showing that the injury rate for this area was twice the national average. The deadliest accidents were falls from windows.
"It made me very angry. It was obvious we needed to do something to keep children safe, to make places for children that were safe," she recalls. By 1979, Barlow was instrumental in getting New York City to issue an ordinance requiring landlords to install window guards. She also participated in an educational campaign, "Children Can't Fly," warning parents of the danger of children falling from open windows in high-rise buildings. By 1981, the number of injuries to children falling from windows had decreased in the Washington Heights neighborhood by 96 percent.
Barlow was also concerned that many children were being injured by broken, rusty equipment on Harlem's school playgrounds. Since there were few organized sports or other after-school programs, others were struck by cars while playing in the streets after school.
Barlow sought funds to repair Harlem's playgrounds and enlisted community organizations. In 1988, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave her a three-year grant of $125,000 a year to do a photo survey of the playgrounds, document their dangers, and present a report to city commissioners. With support from the city's Parks Department, she enlisted an architect to design whimsical, low-cost playground structures, and artists and volunteers to paint murals.
Since 1991, more than forty new playgrounds have been built in Harlem, and a coalition of funding sources and Harlem community organizations now offer after-school activities ranging from sports to creative art classes. Through the "Injury Free Coalition for Kids," developed by Barlow with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, similar programs operate in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and seven other sites around the country, each reflecting the needs and conditions of the community it serves.
Dr. Barlow now works with the National Association of Children's Hospitals and related institutions to extend the program to forty cities nationwide.