Black History Month

Nearly 100 years ago, in the era of segregation and Jim Crow laws, 118 African-American doctors answered the country's call during World War I and voluntarily left their practices to provide medical care to the fighting men in the all-black 92nd Infantry Division and the 93rd Infantry Division.

The medical colleges of Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., heavily recruited their graduates and provided more than half of these doctors - 43 from Meharry and 22 from Howard.

When asked at the time by The Washington Bee newspaper why he volunteered, a black doctor from Indianapolis put it simply: "This is a history-making period, and I want to be connected with it."

On Nov. 3, 1917, eight of these black physicians were sent to the newly established Camp Meade for further training and to provide care for the African-American troops of the 368th Infantry Regiment and 351st Field Artillery, which were stationed there.

The doctors were Arthur L. Curtis and Thomas E. Jones, graduates of the College of Medicine at Howard University; Oscar DeVaughn, Raymond W. Jackson, John H. Williams and James Whittico, graduates of Meharry Medical College; William A. Harris, a graduate of Leonard Medical College in Raleigh, N.C.; and William J. Howard, a graduate of the University of Illinois College of Medicine.

The physicians received specialized training in treating war injuries at Camp Meade Hospital. During their training, the hospital was made up of temporary wooden buildings and tents. It was located along what is now Rock Avenue, about one-half mile south of Kimbrough Ambulatory Care Center.

Before arriving at Camp Meade, the doctors attended the Medical Officers Training Camp (MOTC) for black medical officers, which was a late addition to the segregated Officers Training Camp at Fort Des Moines, Iowa.

The doctors at the MOTC, who were first lieutenants, were housed in whatever spare barracks were left from the field officers. More than 1,000 African-American Soldiers also reported for training as medics. These medics had to use lumber from an old National Guard armory to floor the stables, which lacked plumbing, heating or a cooling system. The men turned the unsuitable buildings into barracks for nearly 1,000 medics.

Training at the camp began in the heat of August 1917. The doctors learned how to make camp, sanitation procedures, regimental medical-detachment administration, camp infirmary work, packing, bearer work and field work.

The physicians also were given command of five- to 10-man medical detachments.

Many training hours also were spent on paperwork, including writing and filing regular Army daily and weekly reports. The reports included lists with the numbers and names of sick and injured men, as well as those who were suffering from veneral disease, tuberculosis, meningitis, cholera, pneumonia and influenza. Sanitation was critical to preventing epidemics.

Of the 118 doctors who were trained at the MOTC, 104 successfully completed the program. Of the 1,021 medics, 949 would continue and ultimately serve with the 92nd or 93rd Infantry Divisions.

Eight of the doctors from the MOTC went on to Camp Meade.

By May 1918, they left for France. They would all serve with the 92nd Infantry Division. Harris, Jones, Williams and Whittico remained with the 368th Infantry Regiment. DeVaughn was assigned the 365th Field Hospital. Howard stayed with the 351st Field Artillery. Jackson and Curtis joined the 367th Field Hospital.

All of these doctors treated the horrific wounds of trench warfare largely caused by artillery (gas and shrapnel) and machine guns. Their Army reports tell of the

carnage they encountered, and the lightening spread of the influenza pandemic that would reach its height just before the great Meuse Argonne offensive in September 1918.

The 18 months of Army training and war experiences certainly equipped them well beyond anything they had learned in medical school. They were given command of medical detachments, which taught them leadership, discipline and responsibility. They learned military organization, planning and training, and participated in grand- and small-scale field operations.

Many of the men used the organizational skills and medical advances that came as a result of the war to make extraordinary contributions to the field of medicine, their communities and their country.

Editor's note: Joann Buckley and Douglas Fisher are members of the World War One Association and The Great War Society.

Fisher's grandfather Maj. John N. Douglas served with 1st Lt. Jonathan N. Rucker, a black doctor, in France from 1918 to 1919.

Buckley's grandfather was a sergeant in New York's 7th Infantry Division, and her grandmother was a registered nurse who worked with wounded Soldiers.

They are now researching and writing a book on the 104 black doctors who completed medical officer basic training at Fort Des Moines, Iowa.

Page last updated Thu February 21st, 2013 at 00:00