Monday, December 3, 2007

2007 Book Fair-O-Rama - Part II - African-American Surgeons

Next up in the "Book Fair-O-Rama" is a slim but informative book on African-American surgeons in the Civil War era. I originally did a review and author interview for my "Medical Department"column in the November 2006 issue of The Civil War News, shortly after the book was published.

"The Best Kept Secret"

by James M. Schmidt

from the November 2006 issue of
The Civil War News

The past month has seen the publication of a singular book: Prologue to Change: African Americans in Medicine in the Civil War Era

(NMCWM Press, $9.98), by Robert G. Slawson, MD, FACR, and published by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine (NMCWM), Frederick, MD.

The book provides the first documentation of medical school graduates for a number of African American physicians prior to the Civil War and discusses the entry of African Americans into medical practice. Also told for the first time are the stories of twelve physicians who served with the Union Army during the Civil War. Though seemingly slim at only 50 pages, the book is packed from cover to cover with information, photographs, and painstaking documentation. The book was recently awarded the 2006 Maryland African American Heritage Preservation Award by the Lincoln Park Historical Foundation Inc.

Dr. Slawson is a retired physician and a Master Docent at the NMCWM, where he was named 2003 “Volunteer of the Year.” He grew up in the small town, Lehigh, in northwest Iowa. After receiving his bachelors degree fom Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, he married Mavis Sinkey, and then entered Medical School at the University of Iowa, graduating in 1962.

During his internship he received a draft notice and entered the United States Army in July 1963. Dr. Slawson spent eight years in the army, receiving specialty training in Radiology and Radiation Oncology while on active duty at Walter Reed General Hospital. He left the army in1971 and joined the faculty at the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine where he stayed for 27 years. He still works part-time in the department as Associate Professor.

“I am a confirmed addict to Civil War medicine,” Dr. Slawson told me. “I have always been interested in history, the history of medicine, and military medicine.” After retirement Dr. Slawson and his wife visited the NMCWM. He added: “My wife thought I was acting bored with retirement, and in the fall of 1999, after the museum completed renovations and moved back into the present facility, we visited again and both signed up as volunteers.”

They both became Master Docents at the museum after completing training programs conducted by the Consortium of Frederick County Museums and the Tourist Bureau. “As I learned more about Civil War Medicine, I became most interested in military medical administration and in medical education,” he told me, adding “I guess this reflects my background in both military and academic medicine.”

His interest and expertise is definitely reflected in Prologue to Change. After describing the beginnings of African American medical practitioners in the United States – primarily slaves who practiced medicine among their people – he lists and gives capsule biographies of black physicians who are known or possible medical school graduates, physicians without degrees – usually by apprenticeship, and African American physicians in the Union Army as either commissioned officers or contract surgeons.

Dr. Slawson drew on official records of the war, published biographies, and literature on African Americans in the Civil War and medical history. Most impressive is his use of primary source material, especially period graduation and attendance records at a number of medical schools. The book includes a dozen photographs or portraits of the men covered in the book.

One of the more interesting men – my favorite, in fact – is Alexander Thomas Augusta. Dr. Augusta was born free in Norfolk, Virginia in 1825 and received his early education in Baltimore. Turned away by American medical schools, he enrolled in Trinity Medical College in Toronto, graduating in 1856. In 1863, Augusta was commissioned as a Major and surgeon of the 7th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops. His gravesite is at Arlington National Cemetery, where he is the first officer-rank African-American to be buried.

The story of Dr. Slawson’s interest in this subject is as interesting as the biographies themselves. “In February 2002 we attended a lecture about eight African Americans who were said to have served with the Union Army as physicians. Having just completed a paper on medical education in the United States prior to the Civil War, I did not believe this because I was under the impression that no African Americans had been allowed in medical school before the war and that the Army required a medical degree,” he told me.

Setting out to prove this was wrong, he in fact confirmed that several more men had actually received medical diplomas prior to the war, although by 2002 only one had been documented in print. “As I worked to fill in this knowledge gap, I found that many African Americans had in fact been graduated from several different medical schools,” Dr. Slawson said. “I also found that instead of the eight men originally reported, I could identify twelve men who served with the Army, three with army commissions and nine as contract surgeons.” This groundbreaking research became the basis for Prologue for Change.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Slawson’s research fit very well with mission of the NMCWM. Mr. George Wunderlich, Executive Director of the NMCWM, told me that the museum worked with Dr. Slawson early on in the process, adding: “We took an early interest in the subject due to the general lack of information currently available and its relevance to our core mission. As an institution we are very interested in bringing forth information on topics where a lack of information or misinformation has clouded the reality of Civil War era medical care giving.”

“We can not hope that all Civil War enthusiasts will be able to visit our institution,” Mr. Wunderlich told me. “Through our publications, we hope to broaden the scope of our audience and spread our mission beyond both our current visitors and even beyond our current day.” He added that books like Prologue for Change will be around for future generations to use.

Although his research added several new names to the list of African American physicians known to serve in the Union Army, Dr. Slawson states in the book’s conclusion that he knows his is not the last word on this interesting, yet largely neglected, story. “I hope that the public appearance of this book will stimulate people to look in the past and in their family histories for other African American physicians,” he told me. “The vagaries of recorded history have ignored them. I hope that many new stories will surface.”

No comments: