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Department of Medical Humanities


medical humanities newsletter
The Bioethics Center, University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina
Department of Medical Humanities, The Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University
Medical History: A Medical School for African Americans in 19th Century North Carolina

On the evening of March 31, 1886, a crowd of predominantly black Raleigh citizens joined students, faculty, and invited guests of Shaw University at the first commencement ceremonies of Leonard Medical School. The six young men comprising the graduating class sat on the platform with their medical professors and the rest of the university faculty and received their degrees. Keynote speaker Eugene Grissom, M.D., superintendent of the North Carolina Insane Asylum in Raleigh (later called Dorothea Dix Hospital), treated the occasion with the same seriousness and earnestness he would have given a white medical school graduation. Not once did he allude to the uniqueness of this commencement or to the race of the young physicians being honored. It was L.A. Scruggs of Liberty, VA, the class valedictorian and soon-to-be resident physician at Leonard Hospital, who brought home that message to an audience that did not really need reminding. "We who stand before you tonight are pioneers of the medical profession of our race," he announced in an oration entitled "Medical Education as a Factor in the Elevation of the Colored Race." Over the next 32 years some 400 more black men would attend similar ceremonies at Shaw, and then begin the practice of medicine, generally in black communities around the Southeast.

Leonard Medical School was an addition to Shaw University, one of many institutions of higher learning established by Northerners for freed people following the Civil War. The New York-based American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS), an organization with a long tradition of benevolence and missionary zeal, sponsored and supported Shaw in Raleigh as it grew from a small struggling school for local African-Americans in 1865 to one of the larger and more highly regarded colleges for blacks at the turn of the century. During the period from 1865 to 1920, Shaw offered college preparatory, college-level, and theological courses, as well as, for various lengths of time, legal, pharmaceutical, medical and missionary training programs.

The medical school at Shaw had its origins in the dreams of Henry M. Tupper (1811-93), the university's founder and first president. Tupper, who was white and a native of Massachusetts, joined the Army of the Potomac shortly after graduating from Newton Theological Seminary in 1862. Deeply interested in serving the religious needs of blacks, the young minister decided, after the Civil War ended, to do missionary work among former slaves in Raleigh, under the auspices of the ABHMS. Tupper worked with small groups of blacks and during the second half of 1865 established a "theological class" that became the basis of a school. In 1870, Elijah Shaw, a woolen manufacturer of Wales, MA, donated $5,000 to aid in the purchase of land for a permanent home for the "Raleigh Institute." For this gift (and later ones) the school was renamed in his honor.

Tupper had decided as early as 1866 to add a medical school at Shaw University when feasible. The president explained this desire in Shaw catalogs during the 1870s: "The colored people, at present, are without educated physicians, and thus are subject to all manner of quackery and imposition, and many suffer and die for want of medical attention." He managed to gain the official, conditional, but still only spiritual endorsement of the ABHMS board in December 1878 and quickly took action. Tupper convinced his brother-in-law, Judson Wade Leonard of Hampden, MA, to pledge $5,000 on condition that a matching amount be raised within six months. He traveled through the North and raised $3,900 in cash and pledges, enough to feel confident about further pursuit of his proposal.

Shaw students had been engaged in digging clay for brickmaking since January 1880. Now the work began in earnest. A 34-room medical dormitory was completed in the spring of 1881. While the dormitory was under construction, Tupper turned his energies to securing land for a medical classroom and laboratory building. An appeal to the NC General Assembly netted Shaw a square acre of land adjacent to the campus that had been part of the governor's mansion lot. The legislature designated this plot specifically for Shaw's medical school. Spurred by this success in March 1881, Tupper turned again to his wife's brother. By the fall of 1882, Leonard Medical School had two new buildings and some extra land. Tupper then secured the services of "some of the leading white physicians of Raleigh" to teach at the school and obtained partial support from drug manufacturers for establishment of a dispensary so "that our medical students may have the advantages of clinical instruction."

The catalog published for 1881-82 listed eight students in the preliminary course and seven in the regular recitation course (though two students were listed in both). The following academic year (1882-83), during which the medical school had its official opening, three young men matriculated as second-year students and eight as first-year. At the end of that school term, Tupper expressed satisfaction and pronounced the school "a grand success."

In January 1885, the 25-bed Leonard Hospital opened its doors to the sick and poor of the local black community and to the medical students of Leonard. In 1886, the first six students completed their studies and exams and were ready for graduation. Shaw University celebrated. Demonstrating the capabilities of blacks as physicians, Leonard's first graduates also succeeded admirably on the state licensure exams.

On November 12, 1893, Shaw University and Leonard Medical School marked the end of an era: the Reverend Henry M. Tupper died after 28 years of service to the institution he had founded. His successor was Charles Francis Meserve, a 44-year-old New Englander with 12 years experience as superintendent of Haskell Institute, a large Indian industrial training school in Lawrence, KS. Meserve found financial matters at Shaw in an alarming state and put the school's trustees and the Home Mission Society on notice that he would not jeopardize Shaw's existence for the sake of the medical, law, and pharmacy schools.

Other Southern black schools found themselves facing similarly bad situations. By the late 1880s and 1890s the strong sense of mission that had stimulated and sustained Northern interest in the welfare of former slaves was waning. Black migration to Northern towns and new interests in caring for the larger numbers of European immigrants in the Northern United States also contributed to a declining concern for Southern blacks. Furthermore, money had become tighter during the economic turmoil of the 1890s.

Times were changing for medicine as well. Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch had proven that microbes caused disease, ushering in the era of bacteriology. German scientists had moved medicine into the laboratory, from which they were reporting exciting developments in pathology, physiology, immunology, and microbiology. Innovative surgery was being performed. Furthermore, medical educators felt that the rapid, uncontrolled proliferation of proprietary medical schools, which had been occurring since the Civil War, had to be reversed. The American Medical Association and individual state boards of medical examiners now strove to increase the standards of medical education.

In the periodic inspections that the AMA made after 1904, Leonard always received C ratings. The school tried desperately to keep up with the changing standards. Terms were lengthened gradually from four to eight months, laboratories were upgraded and new ones built, microscopes were purchased, admissions requirements were raised, more faculty and courses were added, and finally in 1911 a new, modern hospital was constructed. But still, at the core, lack of money wore Leonard down. Rockefeller's General Education Board saw Meharry, a bigger, more dynamic black medical school in Nashville, TN, and Howard, more visible in Washington and possessing better facilities, as the logical recipients of its largesse in the area of black medical education.

At the end of the 1914 term, Leonard Medical School closed the newly built Leonard Hospital and reduced its program to a two-year basic science curriculum. No individual or organization was ever willing to step in and support the school monetarily. Leonard needed an endowment and operating capital to pay professors, buy equipment, maintain teaching and clinical laboratories, and provide for the other usual expenses of a modern medical school. Instead, the school drew off funds from the rest of the university, impeding, indeed reversing, the growth of the larger institution.

Meserve felt he had to close Leonard to save Shaw. He could hang on no longer. So in 1918, having satisfied a need for some 36 years, Leonard Medical School closed its doors forever.

A fuller version of the Leonard story by Todd L. Savitt, appeared in "The Education of Physicians at Shaw University, 1882-1918: Problems of Quality and Quantity," in Jeffrey Crow and Flora J. Hatley eds., Black Americans in North Carolina and the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984, 160-188).