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

Anthony W. Neal
Anthony W. Neal is a graduate of Brown University and University of Texas School of Law and has written for the Bay State Banner since 2012.

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.

After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1907, Dr. Augustus Riley set up his medical practice in Boston. He served on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and subsequently on the faculty of Tufts and Boston University schools of medicine.

Originally from Chicago, William Augustus Hinton earned his B.S. degree from Harvard College in 1905. After graduating cum laude from Harvard Medical School in 1912, he began his practice. In 1915, he became the director of the Wasserman Laboratory at Harvard Medical School, where he developed the famous Hinton test for syphilis.  

Dr. Louis Tomkins Wright graduated cum laude, from Harvard Medical School in 1915. He fought to eliminate a policy that prohibited African American medical students from receiving their practical obstetrical training and experience at the Boston Lying-In Hospital. Wright protested, “I’ve paid my money and I’m going to get what the catalogue provides for, which includes obstetrics in the Boston Lying-In Hospital.”

A 1904 graduate of Leonard Medical School in Raleigh, N.C., Dr. Theodore Edward Alexis McCurdy started his practice on Tremont Street in 1906. Dr. Isaac Lincoln Roberts, also a graduate of Leonard Medical College, did his postgraduate work at Harvard Medical School in 1911 and then set up his practice at 35 Grove St. Roberts was on staff at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr. W. Alexander Johnson was the only dermatologist of color of the time. In addition to maintaining a medical practice and operating a hair product business with his wife, he served as president of the Boston Negro Business League, which was headquartered at 121 Kendall St.

Black hospitals

 Shortly after arriving in Boston in 1903, Dr. Cornelius N. Garland, a native of Alabama, passed the Massachusetts medical exams with high honors. With the help of a local black church, in 1908 he purchased a small building at 12 East Springfield St. and established Plymouth Hospital.

Equipped with an operating room, “all modern improvements,” “accommodations for a number of patients, and a staff of competent nurses,” Plymouth Hospital provided essential health care to Boston’s African American community.

It gave black physicians an opportunity to perform clinical work in Boston when other hospitals in the city refused to grant them hospital privileges.  Moreover, at a time when black nurses were denied admission to the School of Nursing at Boston City Hospital, it offered them a training program. Garland devoted 20 years of his life to conducting the affairs of Plymouth Hospital while carrying on a successful medical practice.

Originally from North Carolina, Dr. Columbus William Harrison graduated from Tufts Medical College in 1906. A resident of 85 Chandler St., he served as an assistant surgeon at Plymouth Hospital for 10 years.

Some of the African American doctors who set up medical practices in the Boston area graduated from the Boston College of Physicians and Surgeons (the BCPS), a medical school located at 517 Shawmut Ave. and established in 1880. Dr. Aaron Hood Thomasson, for instance, earned his medical degree from the BCPS in 1899 and opened a practice at 140 Boylston St. He also served as Superintendent of the Boston Emergency and Grace Hospital.

Georgian Dr. William Worthy, also a graduate of that medical school, established a medical practice at 676 Shawmut Ave. Dr. B. L. Whitehead, who graduated from the BCPS in 1909, practiced medicine in Boston as well, opening an office at 410 Massachusetts Ave. After obtaining his B.A., magna cum laude, from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1902, Whitehead’s classmate, Dr. Walter O. Taylor, a 1909 graduate of the medical school, settled in the city and served on the faculty of Plymouth Hospital.

Dr. John Alexander Braithwaite left Barbados for Massachusetts in 1903. After obtaining his medical degree from the BCPS in 1912, he founded St. Paul’s Baby Clinic in Cambridge, Mass., serving as its director. He later became president of the Bay State Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Society. Dr. Braithwaite conducted his practice at 75 Brookline St. in Cambridge.

Originally from Charlotte, N.C., Dr. Pinckney M. Henderson graduated from Howard Medical College in 1892. He came to Boston and set up his medical practice at 431 Columbus Ave.

Dr. W. H. N. Springer offered “manipulation for acute and chronic diseases.” His office on 33 Warwick St. contained “all modern improvements for Turkish hot air and vapor baths.”

Dentists and Pharmacists

The Census of 1900 documents 10 African American dentists residing in Boston at that time. Among them was Dr. George Franklin Grant, who had earned a reputation for exceptional skill in bridge work. Originally from Oswego, N.Y., he moved to Boston in 1867 and earned a degree from the Harvard School of Dental Medicine in 1870. In 1881, he was elected president of the Harvard Dental Alumni Association. Also an inventor, Grant patented the oblate palate, a prosthetic device that allowed patients to speak more normally. He also obtained a U.S. patent for the first wooden golf tee in 1899.

Grant was the second African American to earn a degree in dentistry. The first was Robert Tanner Freeman, who had graduated from the same school a year earlier, but had elected to set up his practice in Washington, D.C. An authority on mechanical dentistry, Grant became the Harvard School of Dental Medicine’s first black faculty member. He taught there for 19 years.

Dr. J.D. Gibson, a graduate of Boston College of Physicians and Surgeons, was a physician and dentist who specialized in mouth diseases. He owned New Painless Dental Parlors, located at 810 Tremont St. Gibson asked, “Why neglect your teeth, when we offer you such liberal opportunities?” He made his services affordable by offering his patients a weekly payment plan. Gibson later became Surgeon General of the United Negro Improvement Association.

A few doors away at 798 Tremont St., dentist and surgeon Dr. Charles W. Kerr also maintained a practice.

Originally from Norfolk, Va., Dr. Alfred P. Russell Jr., a dentist who had graduated at the top of his class at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine in 1908, specialized in cleft palate treatment. Russell was active in community affairs as the organizer of the Roxbury Civic Club and a member of the NAACP. His office could be found at 4 Hazelwood St. in Roxbury.

Dr. Don J. Pinheiro, a graduate of Howard Dental College, established his dental practice in Boston in 1906.

In 1919, Dr. Jessie Gideon Garnett became the first African American woman to graduate from Tufts Dental School. She lived at 80 Munroe St. in Roxbury. Building her office behind her home, she maintained a practice in dentistry for 50 years. As Boston’s first black female dentist, she recalled that when she initially set up her practice, patients came to her office, saw her, and asked for the dentist. Garnett replied, “I’m the dentist.”

Drs. W. Alexander Cox and Samuel A. Long were proprietors of the Corner of the Cambridge Dental Parlors, across the Charles River at 586 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge. In addition to operating the largest black-owned dental business in the East, Cox served as secretary of the Boston Negro Business League.

Licensed in 1886, Robert H. Carter III was the first African American to practice pharmacy in Massachusetts. Beginning his pharmaceutical career in his teens as an apprentice under the supervision of a New Bedford pharmacist, he mastered his trade by the age of 20. He owned and managed five drugstores between 1895 and 1905 — three in New Bedford and two in Boston.  

Also a pharmacist, Dr. William A. Smith was manager and co-proprietor of Bay State Pharmacy. Located at 840 Tremont St., it was the only black-owned drugstore in Boston in 1915.

An 1894 graduate of the Boston College of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Thomas W. Patrick Sr. established the successful Patrick School of Pharmacy in Boston, where about five thousand pharmacy students were trained. He operated his school until 1936.