Columbia University Medical Center

Exhibit Highlights Prominent African-American Surgeons

The Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library is pleased to host the exhibit “Opening Doors: Contemporary African-American Academic Surgeons,” from March 18 to April 26, 2014. Created by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) as part of its traveling exhibition program, “Opening Doors” highlights four prominent African-American surgeons and examines their roles as educators, healers, and pioneers.

Image of the Frederick Douglass Hospital Operating Room, courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

The Frederick Douglass Hospital operating room, courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

Featured are Alexa I. Canady, the first African-American woman pediatric neurosurgeon; LaSalle D. Leffall Jr., cancer surgeon and the first African-American president of the American College of Surgeons and the American Cancer Society; Claude H. Organ Jr., general surgeon and the first African-American to chair a department of surgery at a predominantly white medical school; and Rosalyn P. Scott, the first African-American woman cardiothoracic surgeon. In addition, the careers of five other surgeons are more briefly examined, giving a broad view of the role of African-Americans in contemporary American medicine.

Sharon M. Henry MD, of the University of Maryland, is featured in the National Library of Medicine's traveling exhibit, Opening Doors,

Sharon M. Henry, MD, of the University of Maryland, is featured in the National Library of Medicine’s traveling exhibit, “Opening Doors.”

NLM cautions that the exhibit “is not intended to be an encyclopedic look at African-American academic surgeons” but “takes the visitor on a journey through the lives and achievements of these academic surgeons, and provides a glimpse into the stories of those that came before them and those that continue the tradition today.”

African-Americans have long practiced medicine, both in slavery and in freedom, as herbal healers, midwives, and bone setters, but mainstream medicine—and especially academic medicine—was long closed to them by widespread racial discrimination. This, however, did not prevent some from achieving distinction.

The first African-American to receive a medical degree, James McCune Smith (1813–1865) had to go to Scotland for his education, receiving his MD from the University of Glasgow in 1837. He would later make his home in New York City, where he became a leading abolitionist and the first African-American to publish in a medical journal. Daniel Hale Williams (1856–1931) performed one of the first successful open-heart surgeries in 1893, when he repaired the torn pericardium of a knife-wound patient. On the CUMC campus, Charles R. Drew (1904–1950) did groundbreaking work on blood banking while a doctoral student at the medical center; when he was awarded the Doctor of Medical Science degree from Columbia in 1940, he was the first African-American to receive this degree. Dr. Kenneth A. Forde (P&S’59), the José M. Ferrer Professor of Surgery and one of the country’s leading thoracic surgeons, now serves on the Columbia University Board of Trustees.

A 1903 image of Freedmen's Hospital which served the black community in Washington, D.C. The image, courtesy of Howard University Archives, is featured in the traveling exhibit from the National Library of Medicine.

Freedmen’s Hospital, which served the black community in Washington, D.C., in 1903. The image, courtesy of Howard University Archives, is featured in the traveling exhibit from the National Library of Medicine.

The first African-American to graduate from the College of Physicians and Surgeons was Travis J. A. Johnson, in 1908. After practicing medicine in New York City for less than 10 years, he tragically died in a car accident in 1917. The first African-American woman graduate was Agnes O. Griffin (1897–1991) in 1923. From1908 to 1940, P&S graduated 15 African-Americans. Today, the College of Physicians and Surgeons has one of the most diverse student bodies of any medical school in the U.S.; 20 percent of the students are underrepresented minorities. Indeed, many of our outstanding alumni, faculty, and promising students could be featured alongside the surgeons in this exhibit.

“Opening Doors” may be seen during regular library hours: 8 a.m.–11 p.m., Monday–Thursday; 8 a.m.–8 p.m., Friday; 10 a .m.–11 p.m. Saturday; and noon–11 p.m. Sunday. For more information contact hslarchives@columbia.edu.

 

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