On Thursday, Nov. 5, the Center for African American Studies (CAAS) Distinguished Alumni Lecture Series invited Gretchen Long ’89, a Professor of History and Africana Studies at Williams College, to present “‘He’s Got No License, Nor no Deplomer:’ A Black Doctor & His Story After the Civil War.”
The lecture began with an introduction by Professor of African American Studies Lois Brown. Brown also serves as the Chair of the African American Studies Program; Director of the Center for African American Studies; Class of 1958 Distinguished Professor in the African American Studies Program; Professor of English; and Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.
“There is much that is important and appealing about Professor Long’s work, but perhaps nothing more than the scrutiny and curiosity and the historical intensity that she brings to her study of the 19th century,” Brown said.
Long thanked Brown for her introduction and gave the audience a background about her connection to the University as well as the Middletown community.
“It’s so nice to be welcomed, especially to be welcomed home,” Long said. “I lived in this building, the Malcolm X [House] and I grew up on Brainerd Avenue. I’m not only a product of Wesleyan, but also of Middletown public schools.”
Long then launched into her lecture, giving a historical background of medicine in America.
“Around the time of the Civil War, the medical profession was tightening up around the edges, it was disallowing homeopaths and begin to regulate medical education.” she said. “For black doctors, another popular perception competed against the respectable professional man of medicine, and that was one of the quack doctor.”
In her accompanying slideshow, she shared an image intended to represent a black doctor. She described the caricature as looking neither competent nor healthy. Long explained that she aims instead to give a truer depiction of African Americans in the medical field throughout history. She focused specifically on John Donaldson’s life and work.
“Today I want to talk about a black doctor who I think falls in between a trained medical professional on the one hand and an ill-trained dangerous quack on the other, and that’s John Donaldson,” she said. “Donaldson’s story shows how race shaped African Americans’ ability to practice medicine.”
She then switched gears for a moment to discuss the title of her lecture and the struggles she faced when trying to come up with it.
“I hesitated about this title, first I didn’t think people wouldn’t understand the words, but most worried that the title might give the impression that Donaldson was ashamed of his lack of education,” Long said.
Long showed a slide depicting the letter Donaldson wrote to the Freedman’s Bureau, complaining that he hadn’t been paid for his medical services. She used this image to lead into an examination of African American medical practice in the post-Civil War era.
“The arrival of emancipation brought with it the Freedman’s Bureau’s oversight into areas of African American life that had previously either been supervised by white owners or in many cases not supervised by any white authority at all,” Long said. “Free African American medical care was a realm that fell between these two extremes.”
She continued by emphasizing that alternative forms of medical care did exist for some slaves.
“Another whole system of care existed within slave communities,” she said. “John Donaldson’s medical practice seemed to come out of this tradition.”
Long explained racial dynamics within the medical community at this time by examining the stark contrasts between common black medical practices and common white medical practices.
“Donaldson’s letter recounts his own anger at the arrival of a white doctor who competed with him for his patients,” Long said.
This problem was amplified by the Freedman’s Bureau dividing the African American community along class lines. Many African Americans of higher socioeconomic statuses preferred seeing white doctors, a practice encouraged by the Bureau.
“[The Freedman’s Bureau] were interested in this better class of African Americans that preferred white doctors,” Long said.
Nebiyu Daniel ’18 found this interaction between class and race in the history of African American medical professionals to be especially fascinating.
“I found the insight that the professor gave about John Donaldson very interesting,” he said. “It gave me a better understanding about the rise of allopathic medicine, but also the rise of the black elites.”
Long again switched gears and showed a slide of a U.S. census, in which Donaldson’s demographic information was present, and critically analyzed it. Two corrections—the only two corrections made on the report—were shown above his name. These changes altered his name to reflect his occupation. Before, his name did not include the prefix “Dr.” and his occupation was listed as “laborer.” This change reflected the fact that his labor was, in fact, in the medical profession.
“If you look careful, you’ll see, it says ‘Dr.’ above his name,” she said. “Given Donaldson’s attachment to his identity as a doctor he may have insisted on this alteration.”
Long concluded her lecture by speaking more generally about medicine in culture.
“Donaldson[’s] failure to convince any white authorities of the validity of his herbal medicine crystalized alternative medicine’s fall from respectability in the late 19th century,” Long said.
She clarified that the difficult path to recognition was not exclusive to herbal medical practices.
“Even for black doctors who rejected herbal medicine, the path to recognition and respect from dominant medical authorities remained littered with obstacles,” Long said.
Long concluded her lecture with a statement that left listeners with a solid idea of how Donaldson’s experiences reflected changes going on in this era.
“In the post-Civil War period, education and professional status became tightly linked,” she said. “The professional struggles Donaldson faced [were] hopelessly tied with racial politics.”