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In His Own Words: Nathan Francis Mossell, Penn Medicine's First Black Graduate

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All images via the University of Pennsylvania Archives

It is not clear to my mind, just now, as to why I chose to take medicine as my profession. I know, however, that I was determined to take my professional course at an institution with an outstanding reputation. That led me to select the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.


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Thumbing (or rather, scrolling) through the typewritten notes that served as Nathan Francis Mossell’s autobiography, you recognize in the voice of his writing a depth of experience granted by a life packed with lifetimes: This is a man who saw it all, made his mark, and remained sharp as a tack throughout. It’s no surprise, when reading the clarity and even amusement—the quote above is directly followed by an admission that his decision to attend the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania may also have been influenced by the Philadelphian presence of a young woman he wanted to marry—with which he recalls his 90 years, that he actively practiced medicine right up to the very end.

In 1879, Mossell became the first African-American to attend the medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. Three years later, he became the first African-American in its history to earn a medical degree. He’d go on to become the first American-American member of the Philadelphia County Medical Society, the founder of the NAACP’s Philadelphia Branch, the co-founder of the Philadelphia Academy of Medicine and Allied Sciences, the founder of Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital, and a noted civil rights activist.

Mossell’s is a figure which looms large in Philadelphia medical history, not just for the barriers he broke but for those he helped others break throughout his life—and the tale of his rise to prominence in the field started right here in the fall of 1879.

Following his graduation from Lincoln University, Mossell visited with James Tyson, then Dean of the Medical Department at the University of Pennsylvania, to make a formal application for admission. Tyson told Mossell that the department had never admitted an African-American student—but added that, being a Quaker, he personally supported the idea of Mossell gaining entry. Additionally, as Harvard and Yale were accepting black students, he believed Penn should be similarly accommodating. When the final decision to admit Mossell came down, it was not without foreboding:

At a subsequent date, fixed by Dr. Tyson: I called and was informed that the faculty voted in my favor. I was told that I would have to take care of myself, that the faculty could not be my father and mother. I assured Dr. Tyson that he need not worry; that I was capable.

Predictably, a significant chunk of the student body reacted to Mossell’s involvement with their class in disgusting, hateful ways—but not everybody followed suit:

On October 15, 1879: I attended the opening lecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. I walked down the center aisle in the capacity-filled amphitheater to a seat very near the front. From both sides of the aisle I was accompanied by a storm of protest.

A student by whom I sat asked me why I did not get up and tell them, "go to hell". I replied that I was not disturbed the least bit; whereupon he jumped on the seat, turned his face to the crowd, and said in a ringing voice, "Go to hell! You act like a pack of D... fools." In response he got some applause, making me know that everyone had not participated in the first demonstration.

Still, throughout his first year, Mossell wrote that he noticed a halo of space around him whenever he walked the halls or sat in a common area. In his first session at the school, the faculty received a message from the student body complaining about his even being there. He shrugged these incidents off, in part because of the support he received from some of the student body—but primarily because he knew he was a better student than almost every one of them.

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He challenged himself every step of the way, attending every lecture and watching every surgery or demonstration made available, reading ahead of the class so as to avoid having to take notes (which Mossell wrote allowed him to pay better attention). He made time for all of this by waking at four in the morning and going to bed at ten in the evening. The monumental effort Mossell put in was, he would write, a direct response to the hostilities he faced—including some from the school’s faculty:

Unofficially, I heard that one or more of the faculty voted against my admission, originally. This perturbed me because I was never able to determine which ones, if any, voted against my admission […] It is sufficient to say that I prepared myself so thoroughly on the subjects, taught by those whom I suspected; it would have been impossible for them to flunk me without committing rank injustice.

Following his first year, Mossell noticed a shift in the way he was treated by the students and faculty. He attributed this in part to his earning of a perfect 100 from R.A.F. Penrose, MD, a professor in Obstetrics and Pediatric Disease—a professor Mossell referred to as “the best teacher to whom I ever listened.” Whether it came from an appreciation for his academic prowess or the gradual acceptance of a shift in the school’s demographics, the respect shown to Mossell following the turbulence of his first year only grew—to the point where, upon graduating with honors, the reception he received was tremendous:

The conduct of the student body at our commencement was a marked difference from that at the time I entered Penn. When my name was called and I ascended the stage of the Academy of Music to receive my diploma, the students in the pit of the hall, greeted my name with almost deafening applause.

Mossell noted that his admission to and graduation from the University of Pennsylvania’s medical department received significant, widespread attention from the media of the time—especially from weekly African-American papers. His story spreading far and wide, he wrote, helped encourage other young black students in the area to make the leaps he made. The impact was made evident over the years:

There were about five colored physicians serving the city [64 years ago]. Three of these were regular graduates. Now there are more than two hundred practicing colored physicians.

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The Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School

Following graduation, Mossell trained under renowned surgeon David Hayes Agnew, MD—subject of the famous “Agnew Clinic” painting that currently hangs in the University of Pennsylvania’s John Morgan Building. He then went on to study abroad in London, perfecting his craft at Guy’s Hospital, Queen’s Hospital, and St. Thomas’s Hospital. “One of the first facts to strike me,” he wrote, “was that where education and job promotions are concerned […] prejudice against people of color is an unknown entity.” Hospitals in the London area, Mossell noted, housed many black American medical students who’d crossed the ocean for a fair chance at an education. Black physicians also filled some of the highest ranks in these hospitals—a stark contrast to the conditions back home.

Seeing the opportunity to directly help other African-American youths become educated in medicine right here in Philadelphia, Mossell founded the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School. It was the second black hospital in the United States, offering treatment to African-American patients and internships and training to black doctors and nurses. Though its focus on helping the black community was clear, Mossell wrote he had a second progressive goal in mind: “I was particular to explode the taboo against women physicians in hospital management,” he wrote. “Women physicians were associated with Douglass Hospital from its inception.”

Douglass Hospital started as a 15-bed facility that eventually grew into a 75-bed facility, all on the 1500 block of Lombard Street. It would eventually go on to merge with another hospital geared toward the treatment of black Philadelphians—Mercy Hospital—to form Mercy Douglas Hospital, which carried on Mossell’s legacy until it finally closed its doors in 1973. Mossell himself served as his hospital’s Chief of Staff and Medical Director for more than 35 years, finally retiring in 1933. He kept his private practice going until late 1946, when he died at the age of 90.

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Inside one of the operating rooms at the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School

Mossell also helped the black community beyond medicine and medical education: He was a prominent civil rights activist, fighting his entire adult life for the integration of local schools and hiring of qualified black professors. He was politically active, working with local elected officials to push a bill that prohibited the exclusion of black students from housing at the University of Pennsylvania. He also founded the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, and regularly opened his home to the individuals and machinery driving change in civil rights throughout the city.

In an effort to summarize how he found the motivation and time to accomplish everything he did as an arbiter of civil rights in Philadelphia while also serving as an accomplished physician, Mossell didn’t mince words:

One may wonder how a physician can find so much time to champion the cause of his people. I have been no less spared from the indignities of segregation and discrimination than the non-professional colored person. In waging a fight to help free others from the infringements of Jim Crowism, I also help free myself.

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