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Boston’s black medical community thrived in the mid-19th century

Anthony W. Neal | 4/11/2012, 8:12 a.m.

Boston’s remarkable black medical community dates back to before the Civil War.

During the 1850s, two black doctors of note resided in the city. The first, Dr. John V. DeGrasse, earned his medical degree with honors from Bowdoin College in 1849. In 1854, he became the first African American to be admitted to the Massachusetts Medical Society. Later, DeGrasse was appointed head surgeon in the Union Army.

The second black physician to practice in Boston was Dr. John S. Rock. Proficient in Latin and Greek, he was a doctor, dentist, schoolteacher, abolitionist and attorney. Born in 1825 to free African American parents, Rock graduated from American Medical College in Philadelphia in 1852. The next year he moved to Boston, where he set up his own practice in medicine and dentistry.

Many of his patients were ill fugitive slaves who had fled from the South and passed through Boston on their journey to Canada. Rock was inducted into the Massachusetts Medical Society shortly after DeGrasse. According to the historian Isaac S. Mullen, both doctors “were prosperous to a great degree.”

The first African American woman in the United States to earn an M.D. was Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler. She obtained her degree from the New England Female Medical College in Boston in 1864 when very few black people were able to gain admittance to medical schools. In fact, Crumpler was the only black woman to graduate from that medical school, which closed in 1873.

She practiced briefly in Boston before moving to Richmond, Va., to treat ill freed people. Crumpler eventually returned to Boston and set up a practice on Beacon Hill. In 1883, she published a book of medical advice for women and children entitled “Book of Medical Discourses,” one of the first medical publications by an African American.  

Another noteworthy African American physician who practiced in Boston was Dr. James Thomas Still. The son of a New Jersey doctor, Still entered Harvard Medical School in 1867 following his service in the Civil War. After graduating with honors in 1871, he took care of the sick in Boston’s black community until his death in 1895. The most respected black physician in the city during his time, Still lived at 20 North Anderson St. on Beacon Hill.  

The 1900s

Around the turn of the 20th century, about 20 black doctors resided in the city. Most of them maintained practices primarily in the South End and Roxbury.

Some earned their medical degrees from Harvard Medical School. A member of that school’s graduating class of 1894, Dr. Samuel E. Courtney was a successful Boston physician. For more than 30 years, he maintained a practice at 98 West Springfield St. He was also on the staff of Boston Lying-In Hospital.

Active in civic and political affairs, Courtney served several terms as vice president of the National Medical Association and two three-year terms on the Boston School Committee. He was also an executive committee member of the National Negro Business League. As one of its founding members, he held the League’s first meeting at his home on August 23, 1900.