African-American Civil War doctors to get due
By Ike Wilson
The Frederick (Md.) News-Post
FREDERICK, Md. -- Dr. Robert Slawson and his wife, Mavis, attended a lecture in 2004 about African-American physicians in the Civil War. That experience prompted the retired oncologist to write a book dedicated to black men and women who practiced medicine during the war.
Slawson, a volunteer at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, had just finished a research project on medical education in the United States. In it, the principal historians said that African-Americans were not included in formal medical education until after the Civil War.
"I decided to look into this, hopefully to prove this wrong," Slawson said. "To my surprise, I found evidence of medical graduation of several African-Americans before the war and identified more serving physicians than originally stated. This then became the basis of the book."
Slawson will speak on his book, "Prologue to Change: African-Americans in Medicine in the Civil War Era," on Feb. 23 at the museum. The book includes research on medical school graduates and the African-American men commissioned as Civil War medical officers.
The book is the first documentation of pre-Civil War medical school graduation for most of these African-Americans and discusses the entry of African-Americans into medical practice, said Slawson, who is a member of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, the Society of Civil War Surgeons, and the Society for Women and the Civil War.
"These guys are really heroes as far as I'm concerned," he said. "It was difficult for anybody to do, but it was especially difficult for them. And they deserve to be known and honored by not only African-Americans, but by the entire country.
"I've always hoped putting something like this out will bring some awareness. I'm sure there were others, but prior to the middle of the 20th century it was nearly impossible to find any information on them."
Most physicians do not realize there was a significant African-American presence in medicine at that time, Slawson said.
The doctors in his book include James McCune Smith, who graduated from the University of Glasgow School of Medicine in Scotland, becoming the first known African-American to receive a medical degree, in 1837. Ten years later, David James Peck became the first African-American known to receive a medical degree from a school in the U.S.: Rush Medical School in Chicago.
The most prominent of the group was Dr. Alexander Augusta, Slawson said.--
Born in Norfolk, Va., Augusta could not attend medical school in the U.S., so he went to Ontario, Slawson said.
"In April of 1863, he was commissioned as a major in the Union Army, becoming the first African-American to get that position," Slawson said, "and at the end of his tenure, was lieutenant colonel -- the first African-American to have that rank."
Slawson is a lecturer, author and respected docent of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, said Adele Air, the museum's education director.
His research on African-American doctors is just one of the many areas of Slawson's Civil War expertise, Air said.
Slawson graduated from the University of Iowa School of Medicine in 1962, interned in Youngstown, Ohio, and was drafted into the Army in the summer of 1963. He spent eight years on active duty in the Army, where he completed a residency in radiology at what was then Walter Reed Army Medical Center, as well as a fellowship in radiation oncology.
Slawson left the Army in 1971 and joined the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in radiation oncology. He retired in the summer of 1998 but stayed in Maryland and still works part time at the university.
"I have always been interested in history and the history of medicine," he said, "and when the National Museum of Civil War Medicine moved back to its present facility after the renovations, Mavis and I visited and both decided to volunteer there starting in 2001."