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History Of African Americans In Medicine

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African American Achievements in Medicine:

Ten Profiles of Black Pioneers

Medical schools were closed to Negroes in the south and to a lesser degree in the north. Because of the color line in medicine, the first few Negro physicians received their medical degrees abroad. A few older medical schools in the east admitted some Negroes; namely, Harvard, Yale, and Pennsylvania. In the Midwest, Indiana, Northwestern, and Michigan accepted some Negro medical students.

  • 1847: First Negro medical student graduated from a northern medical school — David J. Peck (Rush Medical School, Chicago).
  • 1849: Bowdoin Medical School in Maine awarded medical degrees to John V. De Grasse and Thomas J. White.
  • 1858: Berkshire Medical School in Massachusetts awarded two medical degrees to Negroes.
  • 1860: By 1860, at least nine northern medical schools admitted Negroes: Bowdoin in Maine, the Medical School of the University of New York, Caselton Medical School in Vermont, Berkshire Medical School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Rush Medical School in Chicago, the Eclectic Medical School of Philadelphia, the Homeopathic College of Cleveland, the American Medical College, and the Medical School of Harvard University.

Daniel Hale Williams, 1858–1931, noted American surgeon, was born in Hollidaysburg, PA, and earned his M.D. from Northwestern University in 1883. As surgeon of the South Side Dispensary in Chicago (1884–91), he became keenly aware of the lack of facilities for training African Americans like himself as doctors and nurses. As a result, he organized the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses in 1891, the first black-owned hospital in the United States.

William Augustus Hinton (1883-1959) was born in Chicago to Augustus Hinton and Maria Clark, both former slaves. Hinton grew up in Kansas, and after high school, he studied at the University of Kansas, finishing the premedical program in just two years instead of the usual three, before transferring to Harvard University, where he earned a B.S. degree in 190

Charles Richard Drew, 1904–1950, pioneer African-American physician, was born in Washington, D.C. As a surgeon and a professor at Howard Univ. (1935–36; 1942–50), he developed a means of preserving blood plasma for transfusion. During World War II he headed (1940–41) the program that sent blood to Great Britain.

Mary Eliza Mahoney, America’s first Black professionally trained nurse, was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts and graduated from the New England Hospital for Women and Children Training School for Nurses in 1879, having worked there for fifteen years before being accepted into its nursing school.

James Derham, the first recognized Black physician in the United States, was born a slave in Philadelphia, where his early masters taught him the fundamentals of reading and writing. Derham, owned by a number of doctors, ended up in New Orleans with a Scottish physician, who hired him in 1783 to perform medical services. When he was 21, he bought his freedom and went to New Orleans where he set up his own medical practice.

David Peck, Between 1844 and 1846 studied medicine under Dr. Joseph P. Gaszzam, an anti-slavery white doctor in Pittsburgh. He then entered Rush Medical College in Chicago in 1846, three years after the institution opened. After he graduated in 1847, Peck became the first black man to graduate from an American medical school, 1847.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, M.D, Born in Delaware in 1831, is recognized frequently in history books as the first African American woman to earn a doctor of science degree. According to National Library of Medicine (NLM), she graduated in 1863 from the New England Female Medical College. Crumpler in her published writing entitled, “Book of Medical Discourses,” mentioned observing the aunt who raised her, skillfully care for the sick and credits that experience for awakening a passion for the field of medicine.

James McCune Smith (April 18, 1813 – November 17, 1865), American physician, apothecary, abolitionist, and author, was the first African American to hold a medical degree, having graduated at the top in his class at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. At the age of 25, just returned from medical school in Scotland, Dr. Smith rose at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society and spoke out against slavery, telling the crowd of abolitionist support in Europe. He was also the first African American to own and operate a pharmacy in the United States.

Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, M.D., was born Norfolk, Virginia. She graduated from Tufts Medical College at the age of 37 and as with many young health care professionals of African descent born during that tense racial era, this consistent honor roll student was denied professional access into predominantly white hospitals. Determined, she moved to Washington DC for an internship at Freedmen’s Hospital (now Howard University Hospital).

Dr. Benjamin Carson, the first African-American Neurosurgeon to separate conjoined twins, was born and reared in inner-city Detroit. Dr. Carson credits his mother Sonya’s influence with much of his success. She worked as a domestic, with only a third grade education herself, but she prayed diligently for wisdom to help Ben and his older brother Curtis success in school. Vigorous studying and a thirst for knowledge enabled young Dr. Carson to graduate from high school with honors and gain admission to Yale University where he pursued a degree in Psychology.

The Black Hospital Movement (1865 – 1960’s)

SOURCE: Duke University Medical Center Library Online Reasons:

  • A place for negro physicians to treat patients and improve skills through lectures, workshops, and training sessions
  • Negroes (doctors and patients) were excluded from most hospitals
  • To offset the inequities with respect to health care facilities and practices
  • The lack of negro hospitals contributed to the poor health status of the colored community
  • Black physicians saw black hospitals as a larger part of a general movement to improve the social standing of colored society


  • Establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau and it’s medical division
  • Hospitals, dispensaries, and other health care facilities were established in the larger cities, especially in the south
  • Self-help and philanthropic support
  • The move from exclusion to segregation in hospital care
  • The establishment of separate (but not equal) asylums, poorhouses, homes for children, institutions for the deaf and dumb, and adjuncts to city and county hospitals and infirmaries
  • The emergence of the black hospital

In a feature article published by National Library of Medicine, “Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons,” the author comments on history of African American physicians from the pre-Civil War era to the present and notes that very few free African Americans were trained physicians or surgeons, and medical education was not open to people of color in the United States. Those seeking medical careers as physicians most often received their medical education in Canada or Europe, and a few from medical schools in the North.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, African Americans seeking a medical education were faced with difficult prospects. Few medical schools would admit black students regardless of their academic excellence.

For those achieving a medical degree, specialized studies and hospital privileges were almost unattainable as few hospitals allowed black physicians access for training or to treat patients. This continued into much of the 20th century, and although some black students were admitted into white medical schools and hospitals, they faced blatant racism, ostracism, and prejudice. African Americans have faced incredible obstacles along the path to success in the medical field.

“The journey of the African American physician from pre-Civil War to modern day America has been a challenging one. Early black pioneer physicians not only became skilled practitioners, they became trailblazers and educators paving the way for future physicians, surgeons, and nurses, and opening doors to better health care for the African American community”

More History of African Americans in Medicine

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About Darlene Dancy

Darlene Dancy is the owner of Affordable and Historical Art. Darlene's goal is to educate, motivate and empower people of African descent to learn the rich history of African culture - past & present. Discover Black History written, researched and preserved by African American Scholars. Lectures, Documentaries & Auto Biographies on DVD's and Historical Black Print/Poster art

One comment

    Shenell Little, RN

    I found this site to be very informative about medical history. This information was not discussed at all during nursing school.

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