A Philadelphia Story the Lost Legacy of Dr. Nathan Mossell He Was the First Black Doctor from the University of Pennsylvania, a Medical Pioneer Who Fought White Bigotry and Black Self-Defeatism. as He Feared, His Achievements Became a Casualty of His Principles

Article excerpt

On May 4, 1934, the Pittsburgh Courier -- the most widely circulated African-American newspaper in America -- published a letter from a black doctor in Philadelphia. The surgeon thought that "readers would appreciate the inscription on the tomb" of Thaddeus Stevens, the Pennsylvania congressman and Radical Republican who viewed "his whole life [as] a struggle to guarantee an equal deal to all men."

With his letter, Dr. Nathan Mossell wished to reveal -- more than 60 years after Stevens' death -- that the legacy of the staunch white abolitionist had amounted to nothing more than a "neglected" tomb.

Yet as he reflected upon the lost legacy of a man who had so valiantly defended civil liberties, Dr. Mossell wrote to the Courier with his own life in mind. Would "the little cemetery in which his remains repose" become "grown up in weeds" with "its fences dilapidated," too?

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In 1882, Dr. Mossell became the first African-American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, the oldest medical training program in America and indeed, one of its most prestigious universities. His academic successes at Penn blazed a trail for a future class of black clinicians and scholars who would have otherwise been denied the opportunity to learn at such an elite institution.

Yet this was a small victory for African-American professionals during the late 19th century. It was arguably the most extreme period of racism ever witnessed in this country, what many historians describe as the "nadir" for African-Americans.

The late 19th century was a difficult time for qualified physicians, black and white alike. Without standards for medical education, ways of healing the body largely depended upon the choices and fears of those who sought cures.

As medical historian Roy Porter has explained, the era remained a medical marketplace, in which priests, quacks, homeopaths and physicians with Ivy League degrees competed for patients. With such choice in how to resolve ailments, the period gave rise to a self- help approach that required individuals to take responsibility for the maintenance of their own bodies. As citizens tried to preserve their health, they oftentimes bought into the promises advertised by mail-order medicines and treatments. The use of certain creams, ointments and syrups would surely help them to feel and look better.

Other messages were deeply and darkly threaded into the core of the rising health movement. Dating back to Thomas Jefferson's theories about the inferiority of the black body, many Americans continued to view black and white bodies as fundamentally different into the Reconstruction period.

Myths about the inherent danger of the black body to white people also infiltrated medical science. Theories about disease transmission became a means of reinforcing these social stigmas. Fears about black contagiousness instigated federal intervention into public health in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Freedman's Bureau was designed to help the newly free blacks, but it largely failed to provide adequate health care. By the time Dr. Mossell began his undergraduate training at Lincoln University, the all- black university in eastern Pennsylvania, all but one of the Bureau hospitals had closed.

With Penn diploma in hand, Dr. Mossell joined only a handful of black physicians practicing in Philadelphia by the mid-1880s. The city's white hospitals refused to entertain admitting privileges for black doctors. With no private black hospital in the city -- or in the country for that matter -- black physicians were forced into private practice.

Dr. Mossell was fortunate to have found several strong-willed and liberal-minded mentors at Penn. Through the help of a Penn professor of surgery, Dr. D. Hayes Agnew, Dr. Mossell was able to secure a post-graduate internship at the university's hospital. When he met with some resistance upon seeking admission to the Philadelphia County Medical Society, the dean of the Penn Medical School, Dr. …

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