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Black History Facts

The Medicine Men

DID YOU KNOW…the black man brought with him from Africa a medicine that flourished in Colonial America.  They had their medicine-men and conjure-women, but they also had their own “material medica,” the product of centuries of practical experience.  They knew the medicinal value of a wide-assortment of mineral, plant and herb mixes with the result that “root doctoring” occupied a prominent place in the therapeutic arsenal of many Southern plantations.  They even knew of the practice of “buying the smallpox.”  The white minister credited with introducing this practice into the colonies in the early 18th Century learned of it from a Negro slave.  Negro midwives brought medical knowledge from Africa concerning birth by Caesarian Section.  With such a background, Negro slaves took to the healing arts.

As early as 1740, a fugitive slave was described as “being able to bleed and draw teeth.”  In 1751, a Negro named Cesar discovered a cure for rattlesnake bite.  Another slave-born Negro, David K. McDonough, was licensed to practice medicine and served on the staff of New York’s Eye and Ear Infirmary.  The first private hospital for blacks in New York was named in his honor.

Santomee, a slave, was trained in Holland and studied medicine among the Dutch and English in New York.  Another slave, Oneissimus, developed an antidote for smallpox in 1721.

Other early black physicians most of whom were self-taught, included James Still (1810), David Ruggies (1810) and William Wells Brown (1816); all were also well-known abolitionists.

James Derham is generally regarded as the first trained black physician.  During the 1780’s, he became one of the most prominent physicians of New Orleans.

Dr. John S. Rock practiced medicine and dentistry for 11 years before being sworn in as the first black to argue cases of law before the Supreme Court.  Martin Delany was trained in medicine at Harvard (1852).  Eight licensed physicians served the Army Medical Corps in the Civil War, but only one, Dr. John V. De Grasse, served with a regiment.  Assigned to Washington hospitals were C.B. Purvis, A. Tucker, William Powell, John Rapier, William Willis, A.R. Abbott and A.T. Augusta.

Howard University’s School of Medicine and Meharry Medical College were established in 1876.  Beginning in 1862, six others were founded, but disappeared during the early 20th Century.

At the turn of the Century, the “Big Four” of Negro physicians were Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, (pictured above) Dr. George Cleveland Hall, Chicago surgeon and diagnostician, Dr. Auston M. Curtis, Chicago protégé of Dr. Williams, and Dr. Nathan F. Mossell, founder of the Frederick Douglas Hospital in Philadelphia.  Dr. Daniel Hale Williams made history with the first successful open heart operation in Chicago.

From World War I to World War II, all Negro medical personnel continued to fight against great odds.  But in spite of these difficulties, a number made striking contributions to the progress of American medicine and science.  Among these were Dr. Louis T. Wright, antibiotic Aureomycin; Dr. William A Hinton, the Hinton Test for Syphillis, Dr. T.K. Lawless, renowned dermatologist; Dr. Jane Cook Wright-Jones, cancer chemotherapy, Dr. Ulysses Grant Dalley, founder-fellow International College of Surgeons, Dr. Charles Drew, blood plasma; Dr. W. Montague Cobb, anatomist at Howard University.  These and many others were fighting against the postscript of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois:  “Our death rate is without a doubt…due to poverty and discrimination.”

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