Pioneers and pathbreakers: Celebrating black history milestones at Michigan Medicine

February 12, 2020  //  FOUND IN: News,
Top row: William Henry Fitzbutler, M.D., Sophia B. Jones, M.D., Katherine Crawford, M.D., Albert Wheeler, Ph.D. Bottom row: James L. Curtis, M.D, Jimmy Crudup, Shirley Martin, Rhetaugh Dumas, Ph.D., R.N., M.S.N.

For nearly 100 years after the Civil War, African-Americans who aspired to become doctors and nurses had few choices — but U-M was one of them. 

In honor of that heritage — and of Black History Month — here are some key milestones and people who played a special role in the institution’s past.

1872: William Henry Fitzbutler, M.D., became the first African-American man to graduate from the U-M Medical School. Born the son of a slave, he had traveled to Canada with his family via the Underground Railroad. After graduation, he went on to found a medical school and hospital for African-Americans in Louisville, Kentucky. One of the four ‘houses’ to which U-M medical students now belong is named for him, as is a professorship in the Department of Internal Medicine.

1878: The first African-American woman to graduate from any part of U-M is Grace Roberts, M.D., who earned a degree from the homeopathic medical school that had been founded in 1875. (The school and its hospital closed in 1922.)

1885: Sophia Bethena Jones, M.D., became the first African-American woman to graduate from the U-M Medical School. She came to Michigan from Canada, frustrated with the local limited medical training program for women. After graduation, she became the first African-American to join the faculty of Spelman College, and established its nurse training program before going on to practice medicine in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Kansas City. In 1913, she reflected on the health of African-Americans 50 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, writing, “Let the teaching of general elementary physiology, including sex physiology, and sanitation be placed on a rational basis in all colored schools and colleges, in the hands of men and women thoroughly trained and with full knowledge of the health problems named above, and there can be little doubt that the issue of the conflict will be such a rapidly declining death rate and reduced morbidity as will astonish the civilized world.”

1898: With Ann Arbor’s African-American population beginning to boom, Katherine Crawford, M.D. received her U-M degree and set up her medical practice on Fuller Street — one of about 150 licensed African-American female physicians in the country.

1924: Marjorie Franklin enrolled as the first African-American student at the U-M Hospital School for Nurses (what is now known as the School of Nursing). She was initially denied university-provided housing because of her race, but fought for the right to live on campus and was allowed to live in the new Couzens Dormitory when it opened in 1925. Read more about the housing challenges facing female students of color here.

1946: James L. Curtis, M.D., graduated from the medical school after helping integrate the Victor Vaughn dormitory for male medical students during World War II. He went on to pursue specialty training in psychiatry at a time when less than 100 African-American physicians in the U.S. had trained for a specialty. Later, he wrote leading books on the experiences of African-Americans in medical training, and efforts to increase the training of physicians of color. In one, he wrote that his was the last class in which African-American medical students had to travel out of state to do their clinical clerkships in obstetrics and gynecology, because they could not practice at the whites-only hospital in Detroit where U-M’s clerkship was held. But other than that, he wrote, he experienced no problems on clinical rotations in the U-M hospital.

1952: Albert Wheeler, Ph.D., became U-M’s first African-American faculty member, when he joined the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. After seven years leading a laboratory studying the bacterium that causes syphilis, he took a leave of absence to launch a second career in social activism and politics, including a term as Ann Arbor’s mayor in the 1970s. “A persistent and vocal leader who raised community consciousness and fought for human rights, Wheeler pioneered in the field of higher education to grant full access and equal opportunities to all minorities,” said U-M President James J. Duderstadt. He returned to the faculty with tenure and became an emeritus professor in 1981. Read his obituary in the University Record here.

1959: Jimmy Crudup was hired as a technician to set up a vascular surgery laboratory for Gardner Child, M.D. Though he never had formal medical training, his self-taught skills in surgical technique and education led to his becoming acclaimed as one of the finest surgical teachers at U-M for 30 years.

1967: Shirley Martin was hired as an administrator for student affairs, with a goal of increasing African-American medical student enrollment. Read her reminiscences of that time, including the promising student Benjamin Carson, M.D., here.

1969: With only 21 African-American students enrolled at the medical school, U-M still had the fourth-highest enrollment of black students at non-historically black institutions. In fact, around this time, U-M was said to have graduated more African-American physicians than any school except Meharry Medical College and Howard University.

1972: The Black Medical Association was founded as a medical student organization, and organizes the first national symposium addressing the problems of black medical students, featuring future Surgeon General David Satcher, M.D. The chapter is still active today.  

1981: Alexa Canady, M.D., a graduate of the medical school, became the first African-American female neurosurgeon in the U.S. Rhetaugh Dumas, Ph.D., R.N., M.S.N., joined the School of Nursing as its first, and U-M’s first, African-American dean. She went on to become vice provost for health affairs from 1994 to 1997.

1997: The Medical School’s African-American alumni association was named for Fitzbutler and Jones. It provides financial support and professional development opportunities, while encouraging philanthropy.

Check out more milestones in black history by clicking here, and visit this website for the history of what is now called Michigan Medicine.