History of Medicine
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.