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National Doctor’s Day

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On, March 30, 2003 the nation will pause to recognize it’s doctors. In 1958, Congress agreed that March 30 was a special day to be observed because that day in 1842 Dr. Crawford Long gave the first anesthetic for a surgical procedure.

That historical event in Jefferson, Georgia allowed physicians to perform painless surgery for the first time.

As we celebrate National Doctor’s Day, let us briefly explore the rich early history of the African-American physician. It is a proud history - unique in its integrity of purpose, in its ongoing struggle for justice in professional opportunity and in its commitment to social justice by both patient and provider to ensure the rights, equity, access and participation of African Americans in health care.

African-American physicians in the highly race-conscious turn-of-the-century South were gaining recognition and achieving a measure of success. Like other physicians, they faced the problems of gaining patients‚ confidence and establishing relationships with colleagues.

But Black physicians of the period lived always with another issue that affected their careers and personal lives - race. Black physicians had to overcome Black patients’ reluctance to use their services, low remuneration from a generally poorer, predominantly Black clientele, and an unfriendly reception and professional exclusion by many White physicians.

Most African-American physicians practicing before 1920 had attended one of the dozen missionary or proprietary medical schools established for former slaves after emancipation.

Through every phase of their medical educational career, Black students were told how much they could advance their race, and how personally rewarding the profession of medicine was.

Dr. Lafayette C. Loomis captured the enthusiasm in his 1868 address at Howard University College of Medicine: “What a field of honorable toil is here! How limitless it’s opportunity for good! Such honor open to the patient conscientious student of medicine.”

For the young Black doctor all this attention meant instant prestige and status in the Black community. So they thought. African-Americans did not always find it easy to give Black doctors a fair trial. They were distrustful after years of relying on White caregivers. A 1896 Meharry Medical School graduate wrote, “I started my practice with considerable opposition from my own people, they did not believe me to be competent.”

A 1920 study by a Tennessee sociologist found, that most White physicians “regarded the Negro physician as an inferior economic nuisance.” “You will find that the Negro mind is incapable of any considerable development, and being a colored man is not to be seriously regarded as a real physician. He is a good Negro, but still a Negro,” the study concluded.

African-American physicians had to overcome racism among both Blacks and Whites. Exclusionary practices barred Black physicians from medical societies, fraternities, most postgraduate courses and White hospital clinics. Sympathetic White practitioners were taunted and ostracized “In 1908, Dr. J.W Dupree wrote, “Not only does the Negro himself suffer from hookworm and tuberculosis, he contaminates his White neighbors, precisely as the racist White physician contaminates him.”

“I shall suffer by the side of my colored medical brother.”

In 1895, Black physicians established the National Medical Association (NMA). By 1920, virtually every southern state had a Black medical society, and several Black hospitals. In 1909 the NMA published the Black medical journal, which survives to this day, The Journal of the National Medical Association.

The history of the African-American physician is still a work in progress. As the path we tread focuses on the current legacy of racial and ethnic health disparities, Dr. Loomis’ enthusiasm, “How limitless its opportunities for good,” still holds a measure of hope. Happy Doctor’s Day!

Dr. Levister welcomes reader mail concerning their body but regrets that he is not able to answer individual letters. Your letters will be incorporated into the column as space permits.

You may direct your letters to Dr. Levister in care of Black Voice News, P.O. Box 1581, Riverside, CA 92502.

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