In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African American Doctors

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Slavery, Emancipation, and the New 20th Century
  • Jim Crow and the Battle for Desegregation
  • Black Doctors and the Civil Rights Movement
  • Black Doctors and Urban Health Crisis

African American Studies African American Doctors
David McBride
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0074


Throughout history African American doctors have been held in high esteem in the culture and political affairs of Black America. Reflecting the major phases of black American history, the literature on black doctors reveals black medical leaders are seen as an elite because they have promoted simultaneously improving their professional status and the plight of the black race pursuing national equality. The first body of writings covers the slavery era, Civil War and Reconstruction, and the so-called Nadir through the early 20th century. This literature asserts folk medicine practitioners, along with indigenous midwives helped to hold slave and free black communities together. As proprietary medical schools sprouted up throughout the antebellum North, a few blacks managed to gain apprenticeships or attend medical schools and then finally became practicing doctors. Like other trained physicians of this era, black doctors promoted their practices and medicines as entrepreneurs throughout the free black communities. Early black physicians were also abolitionists and enthusiastically supported the health-care efforts of the federal government during the Civil War and Reconstruction. A second body of writings focuses on the black doctor from the start of the 20th century through World War II. They cover leading black physicians who, with the support of white professional and philanthropic allies, struggled to accommodate the segregated or, that is, “Jim Crow” health-care institutions. In the South, segregation laws and customs barred blacks from treatment in mainstream hospitals as well as black physicians from using these hospitals. In health-care facilities Jim Crow practices included separate, less-equipped wards for black patients and few privileges for black doctors and nurses to serve in these facilities. Nonetheless, black medical professionals and civic activists built independent hospitals, medical schools, and public health campaigns. Black physicians, surgeons, and nurse leaders inspired the black community’s collective esteem, public health initiatives, and political elevation. A third stream of publications emerged concerning black medical students and doctors involved in the civil rights movement. These black doctors played major roles locally and nationally to integrate medical schools, hospitals, and health agencies. A fourth body of writings developed in the last two decades of the 20th century and early 21st century. These published works center on the struggle by blacks to overcome personal handicaps and become exemplary professionals. These writings also focus on black doctors and the urban black health crisis, as well as black medical life in a new highly technological medical system The final stream of contemporary books on black doctors involve those who became national figures in the nation’s attempt to reform medical education and policies. These doctors became prominent in the face of persistent racial health disparities as well as other national health problems such as inadequate family health care and mass disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

General Overviews

Since the early 20th century, studies of black physicians as a composite professional group have appeared every decade or two. Some were written by physicians themselves, while others were by professional historians. The prominent black physician John Kenney authored one of the most important early surveys in 1912 as did Carter G. Woodson (Woodson 1934) and Midian Bousfield (Bousfield 1945). However, after World War II, more in-depth and critical analyses of the black physician emerged. Along this vein Savitt 1987 studies the black physicians of the early 20th-century South. The two most indispensable histories of black doctors and their medical institutions are Morais 1968, and Byrd and Clayton 2002. The study by Byrd and Clayton is exhaustive in factual depth and thematic scope. It analyzes black physicians in the context of the racially biased scientific thought, genetic research, and government health policies that dominated the nation’s health-care system as the nation’s medical institutions modernize. McBride 2018 is the most recent critical overview of the black doctor’s experience. A third cluster of surveys have been written by medical professionals with career links to minority medical education or medical care. These investigations, such as Curtis 1971 and Seham 1973, illuminated specific impediments to blacks aspiring to attend medical school and enter the various physician specialties. They also covered relationships between black physicians and health-care resources, on one hand, and the health of blacks overall. Each general study offers insights into the specific historic, medical educational, and health policy context in which it was written. Harriet Washington’s comprehensive history of racism in early and modern American medicine provides a sobering perspective on the discriminatory intellectual and political context in which America’s black doctors emerged (Washington 2006).

  • Bousfield, Midian O. “An Account of Physicians of Color in the United States” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 17 (1945): 61–84.

    A physician-historian’s overview of the emergence of black doctors from 1619 to the World War II period, filled with details about the most notable milestones in the group’s progress and institutions.

  • Byrd, W. Michael, and Linda A. Clayton. An American Health Dilemma: Race, Medicine, and Health Care in the United States, 1900–2000. New York: Routledge, 2002.

    The most important contemporary history of black physicians and their multifaceted struggles and roles in the nation’s medical institutions, health politics, and civil rights.

  • Curtis, James L. Blacks, Medical Schools and Society. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1971.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.9690105

    Examines the trends in black enrollments in the nation’s medical schools and various public and higher education factors that limited the supply of black physicians through the 1960s.

  • Kenney, John A. The Negro in Medicine. John A. Kenny, 1912.

    Describes the earliest black medical practitioners and their hospitals, as well as the doctors whose strong community service links set the standard for later black doctors and health professionals.

  • McBride, David. Caring for Equality: A History of African American Health and Healthcare. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

    Presents an overview of black physicians and the medical profession from their origins to the present that includes timeline, documents, and bibliography

  • Morais, Herbert M. The History of the Negro in Medicine. New York: Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1968.

    An indispensable classic that opens the reader to the entire spectrum of the black doctor’s struggles from the slavery era to the civil rights movement.

  • Savitt, Todd L. “Entering a White Profession: Black Physicians in the New South, 1880–1920.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 61 (1987): 507–540.

    A pivotal monograph detailing the unique resources black physicians and philanthropists garnered to keep up with the rising clinical and hospital standards of medical education and care giving.

  • Seham, Max. Blacks in American Medical Care. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1973.

    Provides a general account of the influence that poverty and racism had on the medical care and integration of blacks in the nation’s health-care system.

  • Washington, Harriet A. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Doubleday, 2006.

    Critical to the understanding of the bioethical, scientific, and racial context in which black doctors had to struggle throughout the span of US medical history.

  • Woodson, Carter G. The Negro Professional Man and the Community with Special Emphasis on the Physician and Lawyer. Washington, DC: Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1934.

    Provides in-depth social statistical and geographical analysis of the nation’s black doctors including their distribution, economic links, and social activism that varied throughout the South as well as the northern and western regions of the nation.

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