Thelma Coffey was born on 9 February 1911 in Uptown New Orleans. She was one of two daughters born to John Joseph Coffey and Ann Hattie Fournet. Her father worked for a shoe manufacturer and was an active member of several Catholic lay organizations. She graduated from Xavier Preparatory School in 1927. Just what her inspiration to enter medicine was is not certain.
The first woman of color to obtain a medical degree in Louisiana was Dr. Emma Wakefield Paillet, a native of New Iberia, who moved to San Francisco after she married and never practiced. The second black female physician was Dr. Ella N. Prescott who practiced briefly in New Orleans and then in Franklinton, where she died in 1925. Perhaps a young Thelma had an opportunity to meet Dr. Prescott, who died just two years before she completed high school. It may very well be that Thelma Coffey was determined forward-thinking young woman who was determined to enter a profession which she saw dominated by men in New Orleans.
She lived with cousins in Chicago while she studied pre-med at Crane College. She graduated from Crane in 1930. Afterwards, she traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, where she was accepted to Meharry Medical College. Founded during Reconstruction in 1876, Meharry ranked alongside the Howard University College of Medicine as the top producers of black physicians in the early twentieth-century. While the first woman to graduate from Meharry had done so in 1893, the number of female students was very small. During Thelma’s four years of study, there were never more than five or six female students in the School of Medicine at any given time. This must have proved an interesting experience for Thelma. During her time at Meharry, she boarded at the home of Mrs. Clara Booth, a widow, and her family. She graduated in 1934.
Dr. Coffey returned to New Orleans to complete her internship at the newly-opened Flint-Goodridge Hospital. At that time, many expecting mothers utilized the services of midwives due to their inexpensive cost, despite the fact that many midwives did not have knowledge of the best practices in maternity care. The young Superintendent Albert W. Dent convinced the governing board to allow him to offer a flat maternity rate of ten dollars which covered care, the costs of medicine, and any necessary procedures. This brought a steady stream of obstetrics cases to the hospital and many mothers received the patient and attentive care of the pretty young ‘lady intern.’ She subsequently completed her residency at the famed Provident Hospital in Chicago.
Appeasing her mother, Dr. Coffey, who was one of two daughters, came back to New Orleans in 1937, when she began her private practice and served on the staff of Flint-Goodridge. In those early days when she could not yet afford an automobile, Dr. Coffey could often be seen on the streetcars or buses in the course of making house calls. A member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Dr. Coffey and nine other sorors from throughout the South who were doctors or nurses, spent several summers in the 1930s volunteering in the sixteen clinics set up by the sorority in the Mississippi Delta and centered around Bolivar County. Over the course of their visits they served over fifteen hundred family groups.
Dr. Coffey married Benson Meade Boutte, a popular public school teacher (d. 1969), whose brothers Armand and Belton were popular druggists. To their union was born one son, Benson Virgil Boutte, who was born in 1947. Over the course of more than thirty years of private practice in New Orleans and in conjunction with Flint-Goodridge Hospital, she delivered several thousand babies, according one estimate about four to five hundred each year. One interesting incident in her practice is that when the infamous Lee Harvey Oswald traveled to Mexico just two months before the Kennedy assassination, he listed his address on travel documents as 640 South Rampart Street instead of 640 Audubon Street. This sparked an investigation by the FBI into the building, which in actuality had no connection to Oswald and housed The Louisiana Weekly, Dr. Boutte’s office, and that of a black real estate agent. If nothing else it assured Dr. Boutte a place in the files of the FBI and several conspiracy investigators.
After retired from her medical practice, Dr. Boutte continued to work as an instructor at Xavier University in the Health Sciences Department. She represented her branch of the American Medical Women’s Association at the Medical Women’s International Association Meeting in Paris in 1973. She was honored by the National Council of Negro Women with its Mary McLeod Bethune Award in 1983. She retired fully in 1985 after a long and successful career. Dr. Thelma Coffey Boutte on 21 June 1991 at the age of eighty. She was survived by her only sibling, Mrs. Edith Louise Coffey King, a retired schoolteacher and her son, Benson V. Boutte. Her legacy is the long record of little New Orleanians she helped to usher into the world and the healthy mothers to whom she attended.
Sources: The Collegian (Crane College Annual), 1933; Times-Picayune, 9 May 1983, page 67; Afro-American (Baltimore), 2 October 1937, page 2; “A Record from Mary Ferrell’s Database,” http://www.maryferrell.org/mffweb/archive/marysdb/showRec.do;jsessionid=79824BE98AAB223E49CE6CD9E61EB36D?id=1332