Coastal South Carolina in August 1832 was especially hot, and the air was thick with flying insects and humidity. The swamps and low-lying forests of St. James' parish near Charleston made for a most unhealthy environment in the summer. It was here that Samuel Codes Watson was born. He was of mixed race, closely related to some of Charleston's most prominent white families but separated from them by his fractional African ancestry. Unlike most mixed race persons in the antebellum South, Samuel Watson was born into a free family, part of the small mixed-race elite in the Charleston area.
In 1841, Watson's parents died. As a result, he and his siblings found their escape from South Carolina. They were placed in the care of Reverend William McLane, a white Presbyterian minister who took them to Washington, DC. At a private school run by a white abolitionist family Samuel Watson proved a capable student. In 1849, through the minister's connections, sixteen-year-old Watson enrolled in the prestigious Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, an exclusive prep school. Watson planned for a successful future as a teacher. He studied math, natural science, philosophy and pedagogy in Andover's English Department. According to an 1887 biography, Watson, disillusioned by the increasing national acrimony over slavery and uncertain about his prospects for securing a teaching position, left the school after three years. He served briefly in the United States Navy aboard a ship surveying the Atlantic coastline. By 1853 Watson had decided to become a doctor.
There were virtually no college-trained African American physicians in the country during the mid-1850s. Indeed, there were only a handful of colleges that accepted African American students. The best known of these was Oberlin College, near Cleveland, Ohio. Watson's brother was enrolled there, so he moved west in the late summer of 1853. Arriving at Oberlin, he found that its curriculum did not include medicine and that the nearest large medical school was at the University of Michigan. Watson traveled to Ann Arbor and formally registered as a student in the university's Medical Department on October 1, 1853. He was one of 154 medical students registered that fall, and was the first African American to attend the university.
The fact that Watson was African American may not have been recognized by his fellow university students or by the faculty. His skin and hair were both very fair. As one contemporary noted, his appearance showed "not the slightest evidence of colored blood." The University of Michigan's Medical Department opened in 1850, and like the Literary Department that opened nine years earlier, it had enrolled only white men as students. In order to gain admission without testing the limits of racial tolerance at the University of Michigan, Watson probably passed as white.
While he may have kept his African heritage a secret during his first few months in Ann Arbor, Watson worried less about being "found out" as time went by. He focused on the lectures and anatomical studies required of the university's medical students. Anatomy classes consisted chiefly of human dissections; the "carving," as the students called it, took place in the poorly ventilated 8' x 10' attic of the university's small Medical Building. This structure, located on the east side of the original campus in central Ann Arbor, had been fitted with a glass dome on its roof to allow light into the dissection room. The glass ceiling also heated the small room, even during the winter, and as each "medic" conducted his work foul odors drifted out onto the campus.
Samuel Watson was never comfortable with the dissection work, nor with the invasive and often brutal medical and surgical practices taught at the university. His interests centered on applied chemistry, the compounding of medicines and therapeutic practices, which at the time constituted a new approach embraced by homeopathic practitioners. …