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Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons home banner written in yellow and black text. Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons home banner written in yellow and black text. Pioneers written in black text with a light blue background. Above the text is an image of three surgeons standing in an operating room performing surgery with several nurses and attendants observing.  Courtesy Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University. Contemporary Pioneers written in white text with a purple background. Above the text is an image of Alexa Canady preparing for surgery. Courtesy Detroit Free Press/Hugh Glannum. New Frontiers written in black text with a blue background. bove the text is an image of a head shot of a women surgeon wearing a mask, cap and protective eyewear.  Courtesy Sharon Henry, M.D. and Maryland Institute of Emergency Medical Services Systems. History written in black text with a yellow background. Above the text is an image of an illustration of a building with a flag flying at the top. Courtesy National Library of Medicine.

History banner written in white text with a yellow background.

Early Medical Education

Prior to the Civil War, most African Americans were enslaved. 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.


Medical education for those seeking careers as physicians and surgeons was limited to a few black medical colleges including Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C. and Meharry Medical College, in Nashville, Tennessee both established by whites in 1868 and 1876 respectively, and primarily under the control of white physicians and administrators.

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.

Segregation and Health Care

Organized healthcare for African Americans first developed as a result of the slave owners' need to tend to illness and disease within the enslaved populations on their plantations.

Title page from a book.  Courtesy National Library of Medicine Contents page from a book.  Courtesy National Library of Medicine
Title page and table of contents (above) from
Practical Rules for the Management and Medical Treatment of Negro Slaves in the Sugar Colonies
published in 1811.

After the Civil War white communities gradually began to establish segregated, white owned and operated hospitals, primarily in the South, to care for the newly freed slaves. Although they admitted only black patients, these “separate but equal” hospitals were often inadequate, provided substandard care, and rarely provided access for black physicians or nurses. Segregated hospitals continued to exist well into the 20th century.

Diagram of hospital floor plan.  Courtesy Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Detroit Urban League Collection
Diagram of a segregated floor at Detroit Memorial Hospital.

Several hospital beds lined up around a room.  Courtesy UAB Archives
Segregated obstetrics ward at
University Hospital,University of Alabama,
Birmingham, 1960

Drawing of medical clinic floor plan.  Courtesy Southern Polytechnic State University Archives
Detail of architectural drawing shows
segregated waiting rooms
in a Georgia medical office, c. 1955.


Making Their Own Way

As more African Americans obtained medical degrees, black physicians began to respond to racism in American medicine by forming their own medical institutions, teaching hospitals, and medical societies.

Provident Hospital and Training School in Chicago, the first black owned and operated hospital in the United States was established in 1891. Others soon followed including Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School in Philadelphia and Provident Hospital and Free Dispensary in Baltimore. These hospitals provided a higher standard of medical care to black patients and provided education and training for black physicians and nurses. They continued to serve the black community well into the 20th century.

Four story brick building with arched entryway.  Courtesy National Library of Medicine
Provident Hospital, Chicago
1896

Three story brick building with steps leading to entry.  Courtesy National Library of Medicine
Frederick Douglass
Memorial Hospital, Philadelphia

Illustration of three story building.  Courtesy National Library of Medicine
Provident Hospital,
Baltimore, 1895

One woman surgeon and two nurses performing surgery on a patient while three nurses and one man observe.  Courtesy South Caroliniana Library

Taylor Lane Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina was founded in 1901 by Dr. Matilda Evans and was the first black hospital in Columbia. Dr. Evans, pictured above, was the first African American woman physician licensed to practice in the State of South Carolina and treated both black and white patients. Taylor Lane Hospital was destroyed by fire and eventually established as St. Luke's Hospital and Training School for Nurses.

The National Medical Association was formed in 1895, in direct response to the exclusion of black physicians from the American Medical Association.

Image of men and women, seated and standing outside a brick building.  Courtesy National Library of Medicine
The National Medical Association – National Convention, Boston, MA – August 24-26, 1909

They were instrumental in leading the fight for better health care and greater opportunities in medicine to all enfranchised Americans. Today they continue to represent the needs of African American physicians across the country.

Even in the recent 20th century, African Americans have found a need to establish organizations to address current issues facing black physicians. The Society of Black Academic Surgeons founded in 1989 was established to address the small numbers of African American Surgeons pursuing academic careers and to provide a forum for scholarship in collaboration with the leading departments of surgery in the United States.

Group of men and one woman seated in rows of an auditorium.  Courtesy The Society of Black Academic Surgeons
First annual meeting of SBAS
at Duke University, 1989

Red, black and grey illustration of man in a suit.  Courtesy The Society of Black Academic Surgeons

Group of men and one woman standing in rows.  Courtesy The Society of Black Academic Surgeons
Sixteeneeth annual meeting,
Cincinnati, Ohio, 2006


Changing Tides

With the advent of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's, and the introduction of integration in the United States, African American physicians were less dependent on black hospitals for training, and black patients were more readily accepted at formerly “white only” medical facilities. Many black hospitals were forced to close and black medical schools suffered a decline.

Page of an open book with photographs and text.  Courtesy National Library of Medicine
International Library of Negro Life and History,
The History of the Negro in Medicine
, 1969.

Today African American academic surgeons can be found practicing in every field of surgery and are no longer limited to historically black medical schools for academic positions. Although they still face many challenges, their path has been made easier by the pioneering surgeons that have come before them setting an example of excellence, perseverance, and dedication.

Three men dressed in green surgical scrubs, caps, and masks operating on a patient. Courtesy Benjamin S. Carson, Sr. and Keith Keller. Image of three women in surgical scrubs, cap and mask performing surgery.  Courtesy Sharon M. Henry, M.D. and Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services System Two men in white medical coats and one woman in blue scrubs attending to a patient. Courtesy Kenneth M.D Davis, Jr., M.D.