Alabama’s celebrated, historically black Tuskegee University is most commonly associated with its founding president, Booker T. Washington, the scientific innovator George Washington Carver, or the renowned Tuskegee Airmen. Although the university’s accomplishments and devotion to social issues are well known, its work in medical research and health care has received little acknowledgment. Tuskegee has been fulfilling Washington’s vision of “healthy minds and bodies” since its inception in 1881. In To Raise Up the Man Farthest Down, Dana R. Chandler and Edith Powell document Tuskegee University’s medical and public health history with rich archival data and never-before-published photographs. Chandler and Powell especially highlight the important but largely unsung role that Tuskegee University researchers played in the eradication of polio, and they add new dimension and context to the fascinating story of the HeLa cell line that has been brought to the public’s attention by popular media.
Tuskegee University was on the forefront in providing local farmers the benefits of agrarian research. The university helped create the massive Agricultural Extension System managed today by land grant universities throughout the United States. Tuskegee established the first baccalaureate nursing program in the state and was also home to Alabama’s first hospital for African Americans. Washington hired Alabama’s first female licensed physician as a resident physician at Tuskegee. Most notably, Tuskegee was the site of a remarkable development in American biochemistry history: its microbiology laboratory was the only one relied upon by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (the organization known today as the March of Dimes) to produce the HeLa cell cultures employed in the national field trials for the Salk and Sabin polio vaccines. Chandler and Powell are also interested in correcting a long-held but false historical perception that Tuskegee University was the location for the shameful and infamous US Public Health Service study of untreated syphilis.
Meticulously researched, this book is filled with previously undocumented information taken directly from the vast Tuskegee University archives. Readers will gain a new appreciation for how Tuskegee’s people and institutions have influenced community health, food science, and national medical life throughout the twentieth century.
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About the Author
Edith Powell is a retired professor in the School of Nursing and Allied Health at Tuskegee University. She is certified in clinical laboratory science and blood banking by the American Society of Clinical Pathologists and is a member of the advisory committee for Tuskegee University’s National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care.
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Tuskegee's Commitment to Health Care
I am exceedingly anxious that every young man and woman should keep a hopeful and cheerful spirit as to the future. Despite all of our disadvantages and hardships, ever since our forefathers set foot upon the American soil as slaves our pathway has been marked by progress ... I believe that we are going to reach our highest development largely along the lines of scientific and industrial education.
— Booker T. Washington
Tuskegee University developed through the efforts of Lewis Adams, a former slave, and George W. Campbell, a former slave owner, who saw in the late 1870s a need for the education of black residents of rural Macon County, Alabama. The founding date of the university was July 4, 1881, authorized by House Bill 165 of the Alabama Legislature. Tuskegee's history is closely linked to the accomplishments of its presidents who continued to be the driving force behind the educational, sociological, and health care advances at the school.
From a modest beginning in a one-room shanty located near Butler's Chapel AME Zion Church, Tuskegee University rose to national prominence under the leadership of its first president, Booker T. Washington. Washington (figure 3) was a highly skilled organizer and fund-raiser who counseled US presidents and was a strong advocate of black farmers and businesses. He worked tirelessly in developing methods to aid black people to succeed by establishing a variety of on-campus vocational classes including carpentry, brick-making, sewing, millinery, animal husbandry, and gardening.
Students were also required to complete coursework toward general diplomas, which included mathematics, English, and history. Student enrollment was not limited to rural Macon County and the South but was international in composition. Furthermore, Washington's vision for Tuskegee University (originally called Tuskegee Normal and changed to Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in 1893) involved recruiting the best and brightest available within the black community, including George Washington Carver (1860–1943), who came to Tuskegee as farm manager in 1896; architect Robert R. Taylor (1868–1942), who started as director of Mechanical Industries in 1882; and Monroe N. Work (1866–1945), who was founder of the Department of Records and Research (later called the archives).
Washington's emphasis on health care at Tuskegee began almost immediately. Students who came to Tuskegee were raised on staples such as turnip greens, salt pork, and cornbread. Many students were unhealthy and incapable of meeting the rigors of work required during their time at Tuskegee. Aware that the health of his students required more than a change in diet, Washington sought to help their families through education. By helping the families, he could help the students. From the Jesup Wagon to the National Negro Health Week, he utilized a variety of methods to reach the poor in an attempt to provide a more healthful environment for them and their families. In 1913, he started an on-site clinic to provide medical treatment to students, faculty, and staff, which later developed into the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital.
Tuskegee University's prominence as a black school of education and industrial training did not end after the untimely death of Washington in 1915. Under the tenure of Robert Moton, Tuskegee's second president, the university continued to grow in size and prestige. Moton (figure 4) actively solicited for more adequate buildings and modern equipment for teaching the trades, more comfortable housing for faculty and students, and enlarged and improved facilities for recreation, health, and academic studies. In 1927, Moton raised the university's academic program from high school level to full four-year college status, with bachelor degrees available in agriculture, home economics, mechanical industries, and education. Furthermore, through his efforts, the university donated land for the Tuskegee Veterans Administration Hospital (1923), the first hospital in the United States staffed entirely by black professionals. Like his predecessor, Moton was an accomplished fund-raiser and recruiter. He continued the institutional relationship with financiers such as Julius Rosenwald (1862–1932) begun by Washington, which led to the establishment of a specific foundation to fund programs for underprivileged portions of society and the education of black people.
Moton's work with health care went beyond Tuskegee, especially as chairman of the Colored Advisory Commission during the 1927 Mississippi River Flood. Charged by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to help with problems encountered by African Americans affected by the destruction of levees adjacent to the Mississippi River, Moton worked to develop measures to provide displaced families adequate food, medical aid, and housing.
Tuskegee University's accomplishments continued with its third president, Dr. Frederick D. Patterson. As president, Patterson (figure 5) founded the School of Veterinary Medicine at Tuskegee in 1944 (in 2016, nearly 75 percent of all black veterinarians in America were Tuskegee graduates), the year he also founded the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). The UNCF continues today as a critical source of annual income for a consortium of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), including Tuskegee University.
During the 1940s, while the rest of the world was embroiled in war, the university continued to lead the way in working toward better health care for black patients nationwide. The Infantile Paralysis Center opened on January 15, 1941, as another unit of Tuskegee University's John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital (JAAMH). The center provided treatment facilities and services for black polio patients from the southeastern states, as well as care for Alabama patients with other orthopedic conditions. In 1948, the nursing program at Tuskegee University became the first baccalaureate program in the state of Alabama.
Further accomplishments came with the university's participation in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (which began at Tuskegee in 1939), eventually leading to the formation of the 99th Fighter Squadron of Tuskegee Airmen in June 1941. The men and women of this group represented some of the most courageous in the country. Not only were they fighting an enemy on foreign soil, but also they were fighting segregation and Jim Crow laws at home.
The fourth president, Dr. Luther H. Foster (figure 6), led Tuskegee through the turbulent years of the modern American civil rights movement, in addition to overseeing the organization of the College of Arts and Sciences, the elimination of several vocational programs, and the development of engineering programs. Under Foster's leadership, the University maintained an attitude of open dialogue, allowing a variety of speakers such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Julian Bond, and Alex Haley to visit campus.
Furthermore, faculty and staff were not discouraged from participating in the civil rights movement. Dr. Charles Gomillion (1900–1995), professor of Sociology and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, filed a lawsuit protesting the gerrymandering of Tuskegee's black citizens out of their right to vote, leading in 1960 to the groundbreaking Supreme Court case Gomillion v. Lightfoot. Tragically, on January 3, 1966, Tuskegee University freshman Samuel Younge Jr. (1944–1966) became the first currently enrolled black college student killed as a result of involvement in the civil rights movement.
In the late 1970s, Foster spearheaded the development of the Occupational Therapy and Clinical Laboratory Sciences programs (also known as Allied Health). The Occupational Therapy Program graduated its first class in 1980, making it the second-oldest such professional program in Alabama. The Clinical Laboratory Sciences Program was initiated in 1978 and later accredited in 1980. Students participated in internships at the local veterans hospital, making them more marketable upon graduation.
Under the leadership of Tuskegee's fifth president, Dr. Benjamin F. Payton, the Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care was founded in 1999 as a result of Payton's position on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Legacy Committee. The legacy committee pursued a government apology for its participation in the US Public Health Service Syphilis Study, which had been conducted in Macon County, Alabama, from 1932 to 1972. As a point of clarification, Tuskegee University did not as a whole participate in the study, which is contrary to what many in the media have insinuated.
Payton's commitment to education was exemplified when, in 1985, Tuskegee attained university status and began offering its first doctoral programs in materials science and engineering. Unfortunately, due to a lack of a consistent revenue and support, Payton (figure 7) also was faced with the decision to close JAAMH in 1987. This meant nursing students and other students in the medical professions had to seek internships and employment at hospitals in other cities.
Tuskegee and Health Care, the Early Years
Tuskegee, though not a medical school, was heavily involved in providing its students, faculty, and staff adequate health care. Booker T. Washington's philosophy of a healthy "head, hand and heart" permeated every aspect of the school's teaching and training. Daily calisthenics and classes in hygiene were mandatory, beginning as early as 1881. By the late 1880s, an infirmary was established in order to provide simple medical care for the sick. In 1901, a need for better treatment and health care led to the development of a hospital on campus. These events proved pivotal in Washington's continued evolution as an early leader in health care in the South.
By the end of his first decade at Tuskegee, Washington had already used his influence to recruit the first licensed black physician in the state of Alabama. Dr. Cornelius N. Dorsette, one of Washington's classmates at Hampton, started practicing as early as 1883. Prior to his coming, most physicians in Alabama were unlicensed and, often, not academically trained. In an article titled "The Negro Doctor in the South," published in the Independent, Washington noted: "When I went to Alabama in 1881, there was not a negro doctor, dentist or pharmacist in the State." By 1907, there were "more than one-hundred Negro Doctors in the State of Alabama and there are over twenty-five in the Birmingham district." Within fifteen years, Alabama had acquired black doctors in many of its major metropolitan areas. Unfortunately, this was still short of the numbers needed to adequately support the majority of the population.
Dorsette (1852–1897), like Washington, was born during slavery, yet he became the second black graduate of the University of Buffalo medical school in 1882. Following graduation, he worked in various medical positions in New York. Energetic and resourceful, Dorsette maintained a general practice while working at the psychiatric ward of the hospital in Lyons, New York. He also gained valuable experience working at the poor house and insane asylum of Wayne County. At the behest of Washington, Dorsette visited Montgomery, Alabama, and was determined to begin practicing medicine as soon as was legally possible. In early 1883, he sat through a grueling six-day examination, which was administered solely by white male physicians, in order to become licensed to practice medicine in Alabama. He then became Washington's personal physician, a position Dorsette maintained until his death in 1897.
Dorsette's legacy is further confirmed by his work in helping to establish the first hospital for black patients in the state of Alabama. The hospital, located in Tuskegee, was called the Tuskegee Institute Hospital and Nurse Training School, and was opened in 1892 specifically "to provide care for the school's faculty and students and to train black nurses." One of the first physicians at this newly created hospital was Halle Tanner Dillon (1865–1901), the first licensed female physician within the state of Alabama, who was mentored by Dorsette.
Dillon, born to a prominent African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church minister, Benjamin Tanner, graduated with honors from the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania. She had previously written to Booker T. Washington inquiring about a position at Tuskegee. Washington accepted Dillon for the position of resident physician, contingent upon her passing the Alabama certification exam, the same exam that Dorsette had passed. Washington arranged for Dillon to be tutored by Dorsette, and she passed the exam and began serving at Tuskegee on September 1, 1891. Interestingly, a white woman, Anna M. Longshore, had previously taken the exam but failed, leaving Dillon not only the first licensed black female physician, but also the first licensed female physician of any race in the state of Alabama. Dillon practiced at Tuskegee until sometime in 1894, when she married Tuskegee math teacher John Quincy Johnson, and they moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where he became president of Allen University. She died of dysentery on April 26, 1901, at the age of 37.
Washington's vision and vigor resulted in numerous medical firsts both in Alabama and the nation. Washington knew his students at the institute would learn better if they were healthy, so he established an infirmary to provide care for those who were sick. Black patients had little to no access to clinics, hospitals, or county health departments within the state of Alabama. It was Washington, not Dorsette nor Dillon, who, in January 1891, opened an infirmary located in the girl's dormitory. It was that infirmary that would later be expanded to become the Tuskegee Institute Hospital and Nurse Training School. In 1901, a Mrs. Bennet of New Haven, Connecticut, donated the funds to build a thirty-five bed, two-story hospital. Pinecrest (figure 8) opened the following year with a staff consisting of a "resident physician, a graduate and assistant head nurse, and about twenty student nurses-in-training." The resident physician was Dr. John A. Kenney (1874–1950) (figure 9), an energetic young man with a résumé comparable to his position.
John A. Kenney was born June 11, 1874, to ex-slaves John and Caroline Kenney in Albemarle County, Virginia. Kenney graduated first in his class from Hampton University in Virginia in 1897 and received his medical degree from the Leonard Medical School of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1901. Kenney interned at Freedman's Hospital in Washington, DC, and came to Tuskegee in 1902, where he was placed in charge of the institute's small hospital. Kenney also served as personal physician to both Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. From 1902 to 1922, he served as the director and surgeon-in-chief of the hospital and School of Nurses. The hospital would undergo major changes during his tenure as physician.
Within a few short years, Pinecrest Hospital outgrew its space. In 1911, another generous donation totalling $55,000 was made by Elizabeth A. Mason. This important donation was for the erection, furnishing, and modernization of the hospital and nurses' training school. Construction of the new facility was accomplished under the direction of African American architect Robert R. Taylor (1868–1942). On February 21, 1913, the hospital, located on Tuskegee University property, was named John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital (figure 10) in memory of Mrs. Mason's grandfather, John Albion Andrew, the governor of Massachusetts from 1861–1866 and a staunch abolitionist. On Saturday, March 8, 1913, in honor of the opening of the hospital, the Tuskegee Student printed an article emphasizing the regional importance of the facility and describing the students' contributions to the project: "for the colored people of the South, who have few or no hospitals of their own, and who are, as a rule, excluded from first-class treatment in the hospitals of the South. The John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital, which will be under the immediate direction of Dr. John A. Kenney, medical director of the institute, and president of the national medical association. ... it is an imposing structure, fitted with every convenience known to hospital surgery ... the building is largely the result of students' work — from the digging of the clay, the making and laying of the bricks, to the installation of the electrical work, the plumbing and steamfitting." Mrs. Mason further supported her grandfather's ideals by helping black students obtain an education in medicine. One such student, Hildrus A. Poindexter (1901–1987), attended Harvard Medical School and after graduation became the new hospital's first intern. Poindexter noted that he "found Tuskegee Institute made to order for a practical internship with research possibilities in epidemiology and preventive medicine." This was a profound statement, considering Tuskegee's location and its isolation from major cities containing larger hospitals that offered a wider range of specialized medical care.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "To Raise Up the Man Farthest Down"
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