Opening faculty lecture discusses post-Civil War doctor’s practice

Gretchen Long, associate professor of history, opened this year’s annual faculty lecture series with a talk Thursday in Wege Auditorium titled “‘He’s Got No License, Nor No Deplomer’: A Black Doctor and His Story After the Civil War,” which chronicled the life and livelihood of John Donaldson, an African American doctor from Austin, Texas whose practice of herbal and botanical healing saw much criticism in the post-Civil War age of advancing medicine.

“Around the time of the Civil War, the American medical profession was starting to tighten up,” Long said. As doctors’ concern for patients and scientific advances in surgery were both hallmarks of the period, “even the spaces where doctors worked were – hopefully, ideally – clean, orderly and efficient,” Long said.

Using a PowerPoint slide depicting a period cartoon as an example, she noted the stark contrast between the emerging professionalism in white medical practice and the comic “quack” portrayal of the black “medicine man.”

“That was a popular image of what a black doctor would look like,” Long said, gesturing to the sketch of an African-American man wielding herbs and home remedies, as well as a forlorn, lost expression. “It’s not someone you would really want to have look after you.”

Long said that she sees Donaldson, the black doctor from Texas, as someone who “falls in between these two images” of the educated medical professional and the quack.

“He actually rejected standard training and white control of the medical authority,” Long said. She noted that the doctor had no shame in not having formal training; in fact, he often boasted of his homegrown healing techniques.

Long pointed to a letter written by Donaldson in June 1886 to the post-Civil War Freedman’s Bureau in Washington, D.C., an organization that aimed to support recently-freed ex-slaves after emancipation. Donaldson headed the document with the phrase “Wrong written,” which Long explained can be interpreted as a warning to the reader that what was to follow – mainly his opinions regarding medicine – were not at all traditional or considered “right.” Donaldson took pride in his aversion to advancing medicine; in the letter he complained to the Bureau, imploring it track down those newly-freed blacks – his patients – who had not paid him for medical services rendered.

According to Long, Donaldson had provided services to slaves before emancipation, and he had charged a fee. While white slave-masters carefully documented the money they allegedly spent on slave health, Long noted that “actually, slaves’ health was usually quite poor,” and black doctors within slave communities often contributed their own remedies. “Another whole system of care existed within slave communities,” Long said. “Largely invisible by white owners, many African Americans did practice medicine,” combining plants and herbs with psychological, spiritual or emotional healing. But after slavery ended, African American medical care “fell in between” supervision by once-slave-owning whites and supervision by freed blacks.

Enter the Freedman’s Bureau, against which Donaldson was constantly in conflict. “Donaldson’s letter expresses anger at the arrival of a white doctor who competed with him for patients,” Long said. “The arrival of the white doctor … hindered his ability to collect fees.” She explained that emancipation and the Bureau changed medicine for African Americans and essentially put Donaldson and doctors like him out of business.

The Bureau claimed that Donaldson was duping his unfortunately gullible patients, and some blacks were in fact on board with the Bureau’s notion. “They wanted to embrace the new modern medical practice,” Long said. “Race was not a significant dividing line between Donaldson’s supporters and detractors.” Long touched upon the idea that “both race and personality” affected access to medical education and that, because Donaldson’s behavior and ideals contrasted with the rising code of conduct and professionalism for doctors, he could consider himself excluded from the medical community. The Bureau made this clear to him in rejecting to support him as a practicing doctor.

Next week’s segment of the faculty lecture series will see Christopher Nugent, associate professor of Chinese, deliver a talk titled “A Medieval Chinese Poem in Its Material Contexts.”