More from this week’s theme, black firsts and innovation…
David Jones Peck was the first black man to graduate from an American medical school. He was born to John C. and Sarah Peck in Carlisle, Pennsylvania around 1826. John Peck was a prominent abolitionist and minister who founded the local African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Carlisle. Peck was also a barber and wigmaker.
John and Sarah Peck moved to Pittsburgh in the early 1830s where they established the first school for black children in the area. David was one of their first students. Between 1844 and 1846 David Peck studied medicine under Dr. Joseph P. Gaszzam, an anti-slavery white doctor in Pittsburgh. He then entered Rush Medical College in Chicago in 1846, three years after the institution opened. After he graduated in 1847, Peck toured the state of Ohio with William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass promoting abolitionist ideals. His status as the first black graduate of a medical college was used by abolitionists to promote the idea of full black citizenship and was implicitly an attack on slavery.
In 1849 Peck established his practice in Philadelphia. He lived in and worked from a red brick row house with his wife, Mary E. Peck, whom he married on July 24, 1849. Peck’s medical practice, however, was not successful. Few doctors recognized his status, referred patients to him, or consulted with him.
Peck closed his medical practice in Philadelphia in 1851 and was preparing to travel to California when Martin Delany, an old friend and fellow Pittsburgh abolitionist, persuaded him instead to participate in an emigration project that would resettle U.S. free blacks in Central America.
Delany, Peck, and other black emigrants moved to Nicaragua in 1852, settling on the east coast of the nation. The emigrants established San Juan Del Norte with Delaney as the mayor and commander of the militia. Peck practiced medicine and became the town physician. In 1854 he joined the Liberal side in the Nicaraguan Civil War and was killed by cannon fire in the town of Granada in January 1855. Dr. Peck was buried in the town square of the city of Granada.
Daniel Hale Williams was a pioneer surgeon best known for performing one of the first successful open heart surgeries in 1893. Williams was born in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. His medical career began in 1878 during a two-year apprenticeship in the office of physician, Henry Palmer, in Wisconsin. From 1880 to 1883 Williams attended Chicago Medical College, Northwestern Medical School, and received his M.D.
Immediately after graduation Williams opened his own practice in Chicago. Prior to successfully operating on the pericardium (the sac surrounding the heart), Williams in the 1880s became a trailblazer setting high standards in medical procedures and sanitary conditions. In 1891, he co-founded Provident Hospital and Training School Association, which served Chicago’s South Side community and became the first training facility for African American nurses in the U.S. During Williams’ tenure as physician (1891-1912) the hospital grew, largely due to its extremely high success rate in patient recovery (87%). In 1893, Williams’ legend grew as he daringly performed an open heart surgery on a young black man named James Cornish. Williams incredibly opened Cornish’s chest cavity and operated on his heart without the patient dying from infection. At the time this was unheard of. Miraculously, Cornish recovered within 51 days and went on to live for fifty more years.
Nationally recognized, in 1894 Williams was appointed Chief Surgeon at the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. As Chief Surgeon, Williams set visible standards for doctors from all over the world, who came to witness his surgeries and tour the Freedman’s Hospital, which Williams reorganized with a training school for black nurses. Among the numerous honors and awards bestowed to Williams, perhaps the most groundbreaking was his becoming the first Black member of the exclusive American College of Surgeons in 1913.